Last month Slate announced that it was pulling the plug on Today’s Papers, its popular daily summary of the morning journals, and replacing it with The Slatest, a thrice-daily aggregator of “the 12 most important news stories, blog entries, magazine features, and Web videos of the moment.” Like many diehard Slatees, I was shocked. TP had become the prologue to my mornings. It was a quick, concise read, that made me feel reasonably well informed before starting my day. But I soon chalked up my initial reaction to nostalgia. After all, Slate’s editors were right. The news cycle is no longer daily. And newspapers aren’t the only players driving it. Surely, as an online editor, I should be the last person to cling to such a relic.
But now it’s clear to me that Slate got it all wrong. The lesson of online news is not that readers want their news all the time and from countless sources. It’s that they can afford to be pickier about when and from what medium they get it. Sometimes that may still be from the newspaper at the breakfast table. At other times, it may be via smart phone on the way to the pub. In any case, organizations need to add value to the news by providing either content or context. I don’t need Slate to tell me what the 12 most important news stories are right now. That’s what my RSS feeds and Twitter and Digg and the myriad other aggregators that have emerged in the 14 years since Slate introduced TP are for. Today’s Papers did something that was virtually impossible for most of us to do on our own: read all the major papers and write up a concise and thoughtful summary of their contents. As another blogger put it, “what made TP worthwhile was the ability to get a good-if-not-full picture of a big and complicated world without easy answers in just a couple of paragraphs at a time.” There’s still a need for that.
But the truth is that TP was never about the news cycle. It was about news judgment. It’s not just inside baseball to know what newspaper editors are leading with, fronting, or putting below the fold. It helps us—as editors and reporters and media critics but also as readers—to not just read the news but think about the news. That’s where “meta news” differs from aggregation. The latter can be achieved through algorithms. The former needs human processing. Behavioural economists talk about how meta-thinking—thinking about thinking—can lead us to make better decisions. Well, thinking about thinking about the news can make us better journalists and better citizens. My favorite media outlets—from the Daily Show, to On the Media, to Talking Points Memo—not only deliver news but encourage us to give it a second take. By listing instead of processing the day’s top stories, The Slatest makes us work harder, but think less.