As a journalism student, I’ve always been fascinated by the different ways that people consume news. I love talking to people about not only what sources they derive their news from, but also how they get that news. Is it from a print newspaper, or from a Facebook feed? Do they make a daily effort to actively seek out the news, or do they just see it at random intervals? With these considerations in mind, I decided to stage an experiment for myself—I wanted to see what would happen if I changed the way I consumed news for a week. So last Sunday, I logged out the place I most often go to see the news—Twitter—and asked my family to hide the morning newspaper and turn off the news when I walked by the room. Then I made a new Gmail account and signed up for 34 email newsletters.
I ended up with a pretty good variety of newsletters. Although I had a lot of general news updates and politically-focused sources, I also subscribed to newsletters focusing on entertainment, opinion, women’s rights and sports. Mysteriously, the sports newsletter never arrived. (I realized today that I may have forgotten to confirm my subscription. Oops.)
The main purpose of my week of relying on newsletters for news was really to see if email newsletters are a viable substitute for conventional news, or if they’re more of a supplement to other sources of news. I was curious about the benefits and challenges of relying on email newsletters as a sole source of news. What stories did they prioritize? Did I feel like I was missing out on the news? How much international content was I exposed to? Were breaking news email alerts effective?
On Monday morning, the official beginning of my experiment, I woke up to a deluge of emails. From 6:20 a.m. until around 9:00, my inbox steadily filled with morning updates. I read each newsletter in its entirety. My first impression of the newsletters altogether was that it was really nice to read slightly more in-depth explanations of the news, as opposed to shorter tweets. I liked the simplicity of scrolling through a newsletter and having all of the main stories presented to me, instead of searching for them on my busy Twitter feed (which, thanks to Twitter’s algorithm, often doesn’t actually present tweets in a timely, or “newsworthy”, order).
However, in reading about the stories in newsletters, I was only reading the facts. Sure, I could click on the linked articles to read the full story, but I still wasn’t being exposed to the variety of voices and perspectives that I would see on Twitter. This was one of the main pitfalls of relying on email newsletters for my news; I was only seeing what the people writing those newsletters wanted me to see. I was missing out on the conversations surrounding the stories.
This was especially apparent on Monday when I received an email from Fox News telling me that, according to a poll they had conducted, Doug Jones had a 10 point lead over Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate election. It seemed like a strange reversal from the general consensus of what other newsletters had said that morning. But without being able to rely on social media to show me the conversation around this poll, I had to wait until that evening’s newsletters arrived to hear other perspectives. The Vox Sentences newsletter cleared things up for me—it mentioned Fox’s poll, but also mentioned other polls that had Jones up by nine points. I probably would have seen this “counter point” of sorts earlier, had I been seeking out news on social media.
On Monday morning, I also received two breaking news alerts (one from CNN and one from Fox News) about the bombing in New York City. The breaking news alerts continued sporadically throughout the day—with less frequency than I expected, in all honesty. I used to subscribe to several breaking news app alerts, and I felt like my phone was always buzzing with these notifications. The email alerts seemed less frequent, but I still felt like I was “in the know,” so to speak.
Monday ended with a false sense of security—I thought I was in a good place heading into Tuesday, AKA the day of the Alabama Senate election. But after Tuesday morning’s newsletters, I waited the entire afternoon for an update on the election. I knew that, had I been on Twitter, I’d be bombarded with poll numbers and statistics and commentary and opinion. Because I’m so interested in politics, I wanted to have lots of information and alerts in the run-up to the results. But at 6:30 on Tuesday night, my dad was telling me he knew the results of the exit polls and I was refreshing my email inbox to no avail.
While I was waiting for an update on the election, I realized that newsletter authors must assume that readers are also getting news from other sources. Newsletters don’t necessary bill themselves as a complete substitute for typical news sources. In my mind, newsletters are designed for people who are too busy to spend a lot of time searching for the news; so maybe for this reason, it makes sense that they would only send alerts when the results were announced, and not in the run-up. They probably didn’t want to send too many alerts, I thought.
But I was desperate to know what was happening. My family was watching the news, seeing live updates, and I was sitting on my bed, a forgotten novel on my lap as I continued to refresh my email inbox. At 10:07 p.m., Fox News sent an alert about the Mueller investigation. Jones must be up in the polls, I joked to myself. At 10:25 p.m., I was scolding myself for not subscribing to more breaking news alerts. Finally, at 10:33 p.m., a TIME breaking news alert (which I didn’t even know I was subscribed to) told me that Doug Jones won. Finally able to stop refreshing my email inbox (although a few more alerts followed the first one), I wrote a note to myself: “I really wish I had Twitter to see everyone’s opinions on this unexpected and big moment. People will still be talking about this next Sunday… right?”
The Wednesday morning newsletters were filled with coverage of the election. I especially liked Politico’s Playbook newsletter—their analysis of Jones’s win looked more at the bigger picture, which was the kind of content I wanted to see. I wasn’t surprised that almost every newsletter made Jones’s win the lead story that morning, although from a journalistic perspective I was interested in their editorial decisions on this. Some newsletters framed it as a victory for the Democrats, especially moving into the 2018 midterm elections, while others focused on the loss for Republicans, and particularly the impact for Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
I was also curious to see which newsletters mentioned net neutrality this morning, seeing as the vote was to be on Thursday. In my mind, it was a big story, and I thought the format of most newsletters would allow them to explain the topic in a way that might make it more accessible to readers who may not otherwise understand it. Not many newsletters mentioned it until the vote actually happened, though, which surprised me.
Throughout the rest of the week, I became more accustomed to relying on newsletters. I came to expect a full inbox in the morning and at night, and random updates throughout the day. A lot of the time, I felt like I was missing out on the news because I couldn’t just get an update anytime I wanted it—I had to wait until the next newsletter appeared, and even then there wasn’t a guarantee that the topic I was interested in would be mentioned (as was the case for net neutrality). Still, I felt generally well-informed, and I was able to have conversations with friends and family about the news without feeling like I was missing out on anything major that was happening.
Before the week really started out, I wrote down some predictions, including that “I’m probably going to miss a lot of local, and even national, news.” I was 100 per cent correct about this one. It was partly my fault, having only subscribed to one Canadian-based newsletter; but it made me wonder about the market for hyper-local, community-based newsletters, especially in an age where local print newspapers are fast dying out. I really only saw Canadian stories in The Globe and Mail’s newsletter—and even in that, I would say the majority of the stories were about provinces other than my own. Again, I could have subscribed to newsletter updates from the major city newspapers; but in terms of my local city and surrounding communities, I certainly lost out on coverage of those stories.
As of today, I have officially been relying on email newsletters as my sole source of news for a week. Overall, I feel pretty well-informed. I’d say that newsletters are a great supplement to my typical news consumption—they’re an especially fitting addition to getting news from social media and digital news apps, and they’re a refreshing break from print newspapers. But my week was not without its challenges, like waiting for an update on the Alabama Senate election results.
Now that my experiment is over, I actually want to subscribe to more newsletters to try to cross those gaps of more Canadian or local stories. I’m not going to continue to read every single email that pops up in my inbox, though. I’ll continue to subscribe to all of the newsletters, but I’ll be a bit more selective in what I read—some newsletters that stood out to me this week were Vox Sentences and Politico Playbook, so I will definitely keep reading those.
If there’s one thing I learned this week, it’s that there’s not one “best” way to consume news. You can get morning updates, evening updates, national updates, sports updates, political updates—you name it, there’s a newsletter for it. I’m glad I took this chance to change up my news consumption; but now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go log back onto Twitter.