Why News?

Google Alerts has failed me. For years I’d been trusting it to tell me about new news that cites me, and for the last few years it has just not been doing that. So when I happened to go searching for news that mentions me, I found 135 new articles, listed on my press page. I’d probably find more, if I spent a few more hours searching.

Consider for the moment what would have happened if I had put up a blog post about each of those press articles, as they appeared. Even if I didn’t say much beyond a link and a short quote, some of you would have followed that link. And the sum total of those follows across all 135 articles would be far more than the number of you who today are going to go browsing my press page now that you know it has 135 new entries.

Similarly, I now have 2829 scholarly citations of my work, most of which appeared while I was doing this blog, and this blog has had 3640 posts, many of which were written by others when this was a group blog. So I might plausibly have doubled the number of my posts on this blog by putting up a post on each paper that cited one of my papers. Or more reasonably, I might have made one post a month listing such articles.

For both news and academic articles that cite me, I expect readers to pay vastly more attention to them if I announce them soon after they appear than if I give a single link to a set of them a few years later. Yet I don’t think, and I don’t think readers think, that the fundamental interest or importance of these articles declines remotely as fast as reader interest. This is also suggested by the fact that readers follow so many news sources, like blogs, instead of looking at only the ‘best of’ sections of far more sources.

Bottom line, readers show a strong interest in reading and discussing articles soon after they appear, an interest not explained by an increased fundamental importance of recent articles. Instead a plausible hypothesis is that readers care greatly about reading and talking about the same articles that others will read and talk about, at near the time when those others will do that reading and talking. In substantial part, we like news in order to support talking about the news, and not so much because news communicates important information or insights.

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  • Ben Albert Pace

    Okay, but in this specific case you might (very charitably) suppose that people think they will learn more if they think about the things that everyone else is thinking about – they’ll get feedback and hear others’ insights.

    Perhaps this is not why, but it is an argument against eschewing this behaviour.

    • But if you wait a few years you can see even *more* of what other people say about any one thing. So this is an argument for waiting.

      • arch1

        Not so much if you want customized or iterative answers to your specific questions or point of confusion

  • Stefano Bertolo

    An alternative/additiona explanation is that readers follow the news to rebalance their attention portfolio and move to objects more worthy of attention than their current selection as these objects present themselves.

  • ehanneken

    Have you read Avoid News [PDF], by Rolf Dobelli? He overstates his case, but the core of his argument is interesting. We evolved in a different environment, when news was scarce and often relevant to decision-making. Now, however, news is to our brains like sugar is to our bodies–abundant and marginally negative in value.

  • For me it’s just about time management. If you link to an article citing you my brain thinks, “Hey! An article to read during the lunch break.” If you link to hundreds of articles my brain thinks, “Hey! A morass of endless reading!”

    I hypothesize that if you linked to a single old citation and said, “Of all the articles that have cited me, this one really nails it,” a lot of readers would follow through. If you linked to thirty articles, and said “Here are the thirty articles that have cited me this month. They are all very current.” not a lot of readers would follow through.

  • I like discussing the news in a timely fashion with others. So that’s a fair point.

    But let me take a physics example. If I want to learn physics, I could spend a lot of time reading an old mechanics textbook like Halliday & Resnick. That is probably more efficient in gaining basic knowledge than coming in cold and reading about the latest news from the LHC or BICEP2, which requires a deeper understanding to really learn something. And yet. It’s really fun to learn at a layman’s level a popularized version of what is cutting edge, even if the level of understanding is shallow.

    The point here is that News is a broad subject, from celebrity gossip to science news to politics. And the motivation for following each may be slightly different. In particular some of that motivation is undeniably comes from an honest curiosity on what is new in the world. Bottom line is I guess I don’t disagree with your main point but with your emphasis. I would be a bit more cautious in how highly to weight the “we like news in order to support talking about the news” versus genuinely wanting to learn about what’s new in the world. This is probably skewed differently also by news subject.

    • You are comparing different kinds of writing and articles, while I’m talking about different interest in exactly the same article depending on when you hear about it.


    Another plausible theory is that people want to get news in small doses, that they can chew before they grow bored with the subject for a day or a week or a month, and that they want to be surprised.

    Of course wanting to be surprised could be viewed as a way to get an authority to select news or the order of newsitems for us and that may in some way be related to wanting to know which news is fashionable.

  • Patrick LaVictoire

    Seconding the alternate hypothesis that it’s more about having info delivered in small doses rather than large ones. Fortunately, we have some nice tests of whether it’s novelty or dose size that matters:

    1. Andrew Gelman writes all his blog posts two months in advance and has them autopost. Lots of people still read and discuss articles about things that happened months ago in the news.

    2. Lots of people read Eliezer’s sequences for the first time years later when Luke wrote his “sequence digest” posts with links to the original posts. Despite the material being there for anyone to read whenever they chose, having a daily schedule of a few things that people were reading and discussing together made a big difference.

    • Since your examples are cases where many people coordinate to read the same things at the same time, they don’t distinguish between theories where the preference is for reading at the same time, vs. a preference of small chunks. Note that even though people like to eat food in individual fork-fulls, they still manage to buy large units of potatoes, cereals, etc. and then slowly eat those foods over time in small chucks. I don’t see why people can’t also read a large source in small chunks whenever they want.

      • Patrick LaVictoire

        I agree that coordinating between readers matters. I’m asserting that *recency* matters far less than you implied.

      • I was suggesting that recency is one of our many ways to coordinate on reading the same thing at the same time.

  • The Lagrangian

    Kevin Simler has a great piece on this effect in advertising: http://www.meltingasphalt.com/ads-dont-work-that-way/

    He argues that the function of advertising is not to coerce individuals into thinking a particular way about a product, but rather to provide a social context in which everyone knows what a particular product signals so they can make informed choices about what to buy in order to send the right signals. Reading up-to-date news, especially about things that you can’t effect (i.e. the primary race of a political group you’re not registered for) acts in the same way.

    Of course, it was written last year and is therefore much less interesting than your post, Robin.

    • chaosmosis

      This makes more sense than what my former understanding of advertising was. Thanks.

  • Anon

    Perhaps it’s just me, but my reason is not actually a thought-out motivation, but habit.

    When bored, I automatically check various websites and follow their most interesting links at the time. I also follow tangent suggestions from youtube, google, random blog commenters etc. much more often than aiming to answer specific questions or gain useful information. Most of what I read is influenced by this.

  • zarzuelazen
    • dat_bro06

      Yas! Got ‘eem.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t want to know how to fit in; I want to be the one telling the others about my newest discoveries so that they’ll respect me.

    So there’s a difference in personalities. Most people seem to want to be normal (or rather normal+) and are in catching-up mode regarding information (low risk, low payoff). But a few weirdos make higher-risk bets by trying to be the first to know, so that they can become the expert and gain respect and power.

    I pretty much lose interest when I realize I’m not the first. Fitting in is not my niche, I’m not good at it, so I don’t waste any time. These days you’re never the first, or don’t have anyone to share the information (or funny video) with, but that fact doesn’t reach consciousness. It still feels like I’m discovering something.

  • Aaron

    You should expect old news to give you less marginal information than new news. If you generally follow the news on a topic, and the new information has been widely available, then the older the news the more likely you already know something about it from other sources. If you haven’t learned of it yet, it’s less likely of interest

    Old news is more likely to be known by others and you. New news is less likely to be known by others and you, but can be known by you if you follow the link.

  • Grognor

    “There’s a reason it’s called “news” and not “importants”.”—Steven Kaas https://twitter.com/stevenkaas/status/76003529009004544

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  • And the sum total of those follows across all 135 articles would be far more than the number of you who today are going to go browsing my press page now that you know it has 135 new entries.

    Out of contrarianity, I suppose, I browsed it.

    An interesting article: http://www.buzzfeed.com/andrewrice/the-fall-of-intrade-and-the-business-of-betting-on-real-life#.ftW2BlWa5K

    When Intrade (which I must admit to missing) collapsed, nobody seemed sure about what happened. The article is a post mortem.

    Also, the following quote about Robin provoked my interest:

    “Many other academics, including Wolfers and Robin Hanson, are involved in projects that cater to another clientele: the intelligence community.”