Election season can be frustrating. Endless commercials, constant spin, and very little real information about policy proposals by our candidates. Most political coverage is too focused on horse race coverage and inside baseball to help people understand anything. Friends ask me all the time how anyone is supposed to make sense of all the claims, “plans”, and policy proposals.
I don’t have a great answer, but I know that watching cable news or reading most newspapers isn’t going to work. They’re good for understanding what a broad swath of Americans are seeing, but they don’t do a good job cutting through the spin and noise of election season. That requires writing about sometimes boring and complicated details, things that don’t necessarily create sexy headlines and viral pageviews.
I’m a policy wonk wannabe, so I crave that detail. It’s really hard to find. The rise of the “fact check” has helped a little, providing a space where candidate plans get some analysis. Unfortunately, fact checks are too focused on producing a scorecard (“Half true!” “Pants on fire!”) rather than understanding.
That’s because understanding isn’t all facts and figures. Political choices are inherently subjective. Take any issue. Each possible policy choice will bring with it different tradeoffs. Two people can reasonably agree on the facts but still disagree on how to rank those tradeoffs.
Good journalism, then, needs to highlight those tradeoffs, explain why one might choose one over the others, and then connect that to candidates’ positions. It’s unsexy, but critical. It’s also not well suited for a daily news org trying to crank out issues.
The good thing is that we’re living in a really amazing time for journalism. There are a lot of new business models for journalism under development now. Free but ad supported isn’t the only way. In some cases, you may have to pay a little, but, as the saying goes, if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product getting sold.
So, to bring this back, my answer to how I make sense of this stuff is simple: I’ve been paying for some journalism, some new, some old. If you want to keep abreast of issues in a fairly even-handed way, maybe some of these things will be worth it to you, too. I’ve got a full list at the end of this post, including some of the free stuff I read.
The great thing about many of these sites and publications is that they’re really tech aware or tech friendly. What I mean is that I can use them with things like IFTTT to read articles wherever I want. It also makes it easier to track things that only publish one or two articles a day. For example, I have articles from NSFWCorp pushed to email so I don’t miss any.
I’ll do my best to keep this list up-to-date as my mix of sources changes.
News products I use & pay for
- The Economist: Easily the gold standard for a news magazine, the first three pages are required reading to get caught up on the news every week. They’re also generally ideologically consistent.
- NSFW Corp: longer form commentary and reporting laced with a strong dose of attitude and interpretation.
- Newsblur: An interesting news aggregator. The popular blur blog is worth the signup alone. (has a free option, too)
- TPM Prime: not yet launched, but it looks good. I use TPM’s PollTracker and follow a few of their writers on Twitter, so have high expectations.
- The Magazine: Brand new, but from someone I trust, I subscribed on day one. Looking forward to seeing how this evolves. Probably will be mostly tech oriented, but thought I’d mention it as a model to keep an eye on.
Free News products I use.
- Evening Edition: excellent daily news summary.
- Wonkblog: A good column that gets into the weeds on issues.
- Daniel Larison at TAC: One of the conservative blogs I enjoy reading, even if I don’t always agree.
- ProPublica: Decidedly non-partisan, they focus on investigative journalism about some of the biggest issues of the day. Great organization.
- The Morning News: I just started reading this last week, but it’s a good mix of stuff to know.
- Twitter: Yes, it’s not a news site specifically, but it’s a great news source. Find the reporters you like reading/watching and follow them directly. They’ll usually promote their best stuff.
- DecodeDC: I’ve backed this on Kickstarter (thanks to Catie for reminding me of this one). From Andrea Seabrook, a veteran NPR reporter, DecodeDC is trying to provide the kind of post-red/blue analysis I’m talking about. The first few episodes are worth a listen. They’re on the blog, available for free.
A note about local, etc.
The sources I covered above are for national news. I do similar things for local news. I would pay for it if I found something worth paying for, but everyone locally is doubling down on the free+ads model, or going non-profit. Locally in CT (for Hartford & West Hartford), I’ve found excellent coverage from our local Patch site (especially their email newsletter), The West Hartford News, Real Hartford, and a comprehensive array of local news folks on Twitter.
There are excellent blogs and new media experiments starting up everywhere. I am more familiar than I probably ought to be with a lot of these because of my time working on Storyline, so ask me if you want pointers. Some good work getting done out there.
One last note
I’m lucky to have a number of conservative or libertarian-ish friends who are respectful of me and thoughtful about their positions. Any time I need an echo chamber check, I know I can hit them up and make sure I’m not missing some aspect to a story or inadvertently tuning out some important, but inconvenient, information.
I can’t overstate the importance of that connection enough. Nothing is more helpful than a good conversation with someone that you respect. Finding good news sources is just the first step.
1. From Metafilter. The worst part of the ad driven model is that it forces the business to get the biggest reach possible. This dumbs down the news in order to appeal to the broadest audience. ↩
2. Another bit of advice: find ways to get the news in front of you where it’s easy for you. If you take your kindle everywhere, for example, try and get the news sent there. There are free options for that. ↩