How To Have a Healthier News Diet

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Speaker 1: Hi. The question was, how does the news make you feel? And of course, I think we’re all in constant fear of the news because it always seems so negative. And I would like to see, like the other side of me, like the good news, maybe something positive, but also a solution to the problem.

Amanda Ripley: You’re listening to How to where? Finding solutions to hard problems. Well, that’s kind of our jam. I’m Amanda Ripley. And as promised, we’re going to pick up where we left off today on how to unbreak the news. What can journalists do to regain trust with the public and what can the public do to stay up on current events while staying sane? If you haven’t heard part one from last week, I highly recommend you give it a listen. It helps explain why four out of ten Americans are actively avoiding contact with the news, including sometimes yours truly. And it turns out a lot of you.

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Speaker 3: Hi, my name is Vanessa. Hi. How you doing? Hi, this is Denise O’Grady. I live in Bay Head, New Jersey. Hi. My name is Carolyn. I’m calling from Connecticut. The news makes me feel paralyzed. The news makes me feel pretty awful these days. Overwhelmed, anxious and worried about our future.

Amanda Ripley: Thank you to all of you who called in. I feel your pain and the depth and volume of feelings that you have about this topic made us decide to do two episodes on fixing the news. Last time we focused more on the news industry itself, the need to do rigorous reporting on solutions, not just problems. There’s more to say about that. But today we’re also going to focus on what you, the consumer, can do to filter out news you can’t use while still being an engaged, informed citizen. Joining us again is David Bornstein of the Solutions Journalism Network and Nicole Lewis and editor at Slate on the Legal Beat. We’re going to hear their ideas for how to make journalism better right now. And we’ll also share some tips for news hygiene to limit our sense of overwhelm and dread. So don’t do a scroll away. We’ll be right back.

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Amanda Ripley: If you look at what kind of information humans need to thrive in the modern world, based on decades of research into our own psychology, there are at least three key ingredients that most news sites are just missing in their reporting. Last week, we talked at length about two of them hope and agency. This week, I want to dive a little deeper into the third missing ingredient, which is dignity. What is that? It sounds nice, but what does it look like? Well, dignity is a little different from respect. Treating people with dignity means treating them as if they matter, as if they’re worthy of care and attention. So what does that look like in journalism or what could it look like? A few years ago on the Criminal Justice Beat, Nicole did something pretty unusual to try to understand the people she was covering at the time who were in this case incarcerated. She decided to survey them about their political views as if they mattered.

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Nicole Lewis: So Slate and the Marshall Project in 2020 released the results of the first of its kind, you know, approaching a national political survey of the currently incarcerated people. We heard from 8000 people. So that’s a lot of people who are telling us their stories. And I followed up with many of them.

Amanda Ripley: Yeah.

Nicole Lewis: To learn a little bit more.

Amanda Ripley: Just by the way, just in case anyone doesn’t know, this is incredibly hard to do. Like, it is actually very hard to get inside prisons and to communicate with people inside prisons. So I just.

Nicole Lewis: Want to point that out. And I, I think the thing that stood out for me the most, particularly from that project, was going back to people and kind of asking them, well, how did you come to the politics that you have? How did you decide that you’re a Republican or an independent or you have these views or you believe in gun control or legalizing marijuana? You know, tell me a little bit about your story.

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Nicole Lewis: And so there were a handful, mostly men, but a few women for whom I got like a real picture of their lives before coming to prison and during prison as well while they’re incarcerated. And some of the stories that I heard, I mean, they’re just the crimes were brutal. The circumstances that they had grown up in were brutal. I mean, really just extraordinary poverty, neglect, abuse, incredible violence. And so some of these people weren’t they weren’t surprised ultimately that they wound up in the situation they were in.

Nicole Lewis: But I think in meeting them in prison and getting a chance to really spend weeks, you know, months chatting and finding out more information, I was really left with this sense that a redemption, an opportunity to restore your own dignity, turn your own life around, is almost always possible that people were finding they were getting sober, they were getting mental health care for the first time. They, you know, had time to reflect and there was still choice, still agency, even in the bowels of like a Florida prison system. It’s like people could still pick themselves up and put themselves back together. I don’t know. I think that’s incredible.

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Amanda Ripley: I love this example because it’s not as if Nicole and her colleagues were looking at the world through rose colored glasses or trying to gin up some dignity where there was not. They were just asking different questions and listening as if everyone they covered was worthy of attention.

Amanda Ripley: For David Bornstein, this is exactly the kind of low ego, high curiosity reporting that he’s been training reporters to do through the Solutions Journalism Network. And it starts with asking different questions.

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David Bornstein: How do we engage the community around a hard issue? What is the kind of reporting when we ask the question, what’s missing that’s preventing our community from becoming the community we aspire to be? Is it more coverage that tells us how bad the crisis is? Or is it more coverage that helps us understand what our ideas that we could, you know, or options that we have to do better? And increasingly, what we see is that people will pay thousands to go to conferences or tens of thousands to go to college, but they won’t even shell out, you know, $10 a month for news. So they are not defining this as a core information need in their lives. And so there’s so much opportunity in today’s world for improving the product and making it genuinely useful to people at the community level, at the individual level.

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David Bornstein: I just think that we have to move away from the idea that the news has to be about sort of the worst ten things that happened today. And there’s another piece of this, too, which is kind of, you know, how much of the news is information that we can actually act upon or that actually, you know, we have any control over. Most journalists say, yes, we want to inform and engage people so that they can participate in this thing called democracy. But it takes a while to change the habits. People are, you know, you can’t change them just with one story or five stories a week. You really have to genuinely commit to different coverage over time, and it will then build it up slowly.

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Amanda Ripley: Right. And not just in one corner of the newsroom, but integrated into all the coverage. Right. I mean, I think one of the things that the argument you always run up against when you talk to journalists about this is that, you know, it’s not financially viable to do this kind of work, to cover the news in a way that is fit for human consumption. But, you know, and sometimes that’s true. Right. Like Nicole has said, it does sometimes take more time, more resources, but sometimes and what I don’t know is what percentage of the time, but I’d love to know. Some percentage of this is just the conventions and traditions of newsrooms and also totally, I think, the role of ego in the newsroom. Like often people say, oh, you’re just trying to sell newspapers. No, no, no, no. Most of the time, journalists are trying to impress each other. Right. I mean, I really think that’s true. Like not all journalists, but like a lot of journalists, including myself, back in the day when I worked at a national publication, a lot of it was about how clever can I be? But I think that’s something we don’t talk enough about.

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Amanda Ripley: Nicole, what do you think about about this question of what’s causing what here beyond the financial incentives?

Nicole Lewis: Mm hmm. I mean, absolutely. I think journalists do journalism for other journalists. You know, when I ask my friends who are all you know, they’re highly educated, super ambitious, working very hard in a variety of sectors. At this point in time, when they ask me how I’m doing or what I’m working on or what’s going on, they mostly follow up by saying that they don’t read the news anymore. And it really speaks to what David just talked about. Like they shelled out so much money to have the career and have the degrees that they have, but at this point, they just kind of can’t take it. And so I think another thing that I see is that many of the people leading newsrooms and mega newsrooms are people who have been trained in the industry who are 40 or 50 years in, and they’re veterans of a news era that had very strict conventions that I think are quickly falling out of favor that we’re starting to really question.

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Amanda Ripley: So here’s our first takeaway. Don’t give up. Not yet, but definitely choose your news wisely. Some news outlets are actually trying to change what they do to be of service to their audiences to help explain the world without deleting all the hope, agency and dignity from their stories. I’ve been collecting a short list of places that are doing this better than others with help from all of you listeners. Most of these places are local news outlets, which tend to be much more innovative right now in general for lots of reasons. But since this is not a local podcast, I’ll share some national news sources that you might want to check out.

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Amanda Ripley: So far, leading the pack is the Christian Science Monitor, believe it or not. It’s not a religious newspaper, but it’s been thinking about the news this way since they started a century ago. My favorite thing they do is every story includes a brief explainer about why they wrote it, showing some basic respect for the reader. I’ve also heard from a lot of people who recommended Reuters and the BBC World Service for reporting that’s less sensational and more worldly. For my own news diet, I like to listen more than I watch. Some of my favorite news podcasts include Today explained on Vox, as well as The Economist’s podcasts. And I know I’m biased here, but I really do enjoy Slate’s own. What next and what next? TBD.

Amanda Ripley: But whenever I check out a news source in any medium, I’m always listening for curiosity and humility, for hope, agency and decency. And putting these exceptions aside, it’s kind of amazing how rarely I find it. I spent some time with the leaders of Scripps, which reaches about a third of American households through local TV news stations. And they had done this deep listening exercise where they went into people’s homes all around the country for hours. You know, the executives at the company listening to their problems, what kept them up at night? What they really needed from the news and weren’t getting. And they were just kind of devastated and stunned at how different their perception of people’s needs were from from their reality of their lives.

Amanda Ripley: So in that case, because they saw it and heard it firsthand, they were highly motivated to change what they are doing. And so they’ve been working to try to cover crime differently. There’s a station in Ohio that stopped covering, you know, random vacant house fires and stopped covering random shootings when no one died. And there’s no trend underneath it. And interestingly, one of the biggest challenges they came up against was a newsroom culture. Like in some newsrooms, the leaders were ready for this and hungry for this and wanted to make it happen. But in other newsrooms, they were resistant. And there’s just only so much you can do to coerce people into this kind of change.

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Amanda Ripley: David, what do you think about that?

David Bornstein: We see that all the time. I mean, I would say almost every news organization that we’ve worked with that when they’ve actually gone into the community and surveyed the community and asked them, how do you like our product? What do you want from the news? The number one content requests consistently is we want more news that helps us to figure out how to solve our community’s problems always and also better weather. For some reason.

Amanda Ripley: We they want better weather or better weather.

David Bornstein: Better weather coverage.

Amanda Ripley: Okay. Yes.

Speaker 1: I was better.

Amanda Ripley: I would like better. I would.

David Bornstein: Like that.

Nicole Lewis: Something to do.

Speaker 3: With beautiful, beautiful weather this morning, waking up to temperatures right around 60. It’s textbook weather as far as where we should be for highs and lows. Feels great. It feels great.

David Bornstein: But but the weird thing is, you know, then they go back and then they run into newsroom culture. And the newsroom culture is like, well, this is what people want us to do, but we don’t have time to give it to them because we’re too busy doing other things that are more important to us. And that’s really what happens. We hear this all the time, like we still need to cover these things. And there are these old baked in assumptions. And I think they are generational because when we speak to younger journalists, they don’t come in with those assumptions, especially around things like the climate crisis. They’re the ones who are going to live with this thing long after we’re gone. They want news that helps them to address the problem. And when we speak to journalists of color, they’re even more forceful. They’re like reporting only on problems in my community as a privilege that we can’t my community can’t handle.

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David Bornstein: We have a lot of issues here. We need to understand our options and we need to do stuff. You write about the problems and then go fly off to wherever you know you live and all that. And there’s a sense that, you know, problem focused journalism or deficit focused journalism is not only unhelpful, but it’s also stigmatizing. You know, the only time you report on our community is when you’re coming in, when something bad happens, you know, which which is self-fulfilling. It creates disinvestment and creates harsher policing tactics because of the image it feeds into racism. And it’s absolutely coauthored by this journalism that only focuses on deficits. So there’s lots of you know, there’s financial arguments, there’s impact arguments, there’s equity arguments. And then there’s just like human, you know, decency arguments for rethinking the the whole news product.

Amanda Ripley: Yeah. I do want to mention that David’s nonprofit, The Solutions Journalism Network, commissioned a 2020 Smith Geiger study that found If I Have This right, David, that consumers of all ages, races and political persuasions preferred rigorously reported TV news stories about efforts to solve problems over more traditional stories about problems, which is pretty incredible. They engaged longer in those stories. Is that right, David?

David Bornstein: Yeah. And they had more trust. They felt a greater sense of efficacy. They felt more loyal to the news organization. Right. And it is true that good news is boring because of the way when every journalism has sort of, you know, we’ve been depressing people all week. We’re going to give them something nice on Friday afternoon or.

Amanda Ripley: It’s like.

David Bornstein: For Thanksgiving.

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Amanda Ripley: So that’s your intelligence, right? Yeah.

David Bornstein: And it’s often like, you know, a 1% solution for for a massive problem. It’s like something and it’s almost cynical that they’re presenting it as like a solution. And people actually are people are interested in power fundamentally. They want information that really helps them understand, you know, how can tomorrow be different? I mean, so when the stories are knowledge rich, when they actually are focused on ideas and new methods, and when they’re written with this kind of how done it format where you’re really how did they actually increase the graduation rate by 30 points or why did this community that’s poorer than other communities have a better response to COVID or what have you? Yeah, you wonder. You’re like, What did they do? And it’s kind of like a puzzle. You’re like.

Amanda Ripley: Yeah, you’re curious.

David Bornstein: You get curious about that. So they actually they’re like detective stories when they’re done well. And yeah, people love problem solving.

Amanda Ripley: Right? I mean, who doesn’t love a good detective story? This is something it took me a surprisingly long time to realize as a writer. But it’s the key to making this kind of news for humans compelling enough that it can be financially viable. Every great story is a mystery story, every great fairy tale, every great PowerPoint presentation. All of them should be driven by suspense. And here’s the thing they don’t have to be true crime to be great. If you’re listening to this podcast, you probably already appreciate the power of curiosity of trying to solve problems. Inch by inch. Like, for example, how could political news may be the most dysfunctional of them all be made useful? We’ll find out right after this break.

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Amanda Ripley: We’re back with Slate editor Nicole Lewis and David Bornstein of the Solutions Journalism Network to talk about the elephant in the newsroom and the donkey in the TV studio. How can we fix political news? Is it even possible?

David Bornstein: We now have a whole society that has a very, very low esteem of the government. Never thinks the government can do anything well and doesn’t think that we should pay taxes. When Donald Trump was running for president, he was saying, I’m a business person, albeit I’ll do great things because I’m a business person. What are the names of the Business magazine’s Money, Success, Fortune Fast Company? We have this journalism about business that makes it seem like everyone in business is a genius. And the journalism about government that makes it seem like everyone in government is an idiot and corrupt. And we wonder how this plays into how our whole society works. Its it’s so self-fulfilling, right?

Amanda Ripley: There’s a weird upside down thing where we assume the worst about politicians and somehow give business leaders the benefit of doubt. I think that’s probably changing, but I don’t know if the solution is to just distrust everything, right? Like we distrust everything as journalists and then we’re surprised that the audience distrusts us.

Nicole Lewis: TV You mentioned thinking about journalism as a tool for democracy as, as a, you know, information that is sort of bringing us together in a civic sense and helping us make real decisions. And so this question of then, like, when we do political reporting and we’re just reporting on the people in power, are we really missing some critical component of what it really means to live in a democracy?

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Nicole Lewis: And I think I’m starting to argue and really believe that it’s politics. Little P it’s what people are doing. It’s the way that they try to mend, you know, society back together after momentous decisions that change their lives.

Nicole Lewis: It’s all of that, like little work that I think most often journalists kind of shrug at and say, Oh, it’s not that interesting or it won’t work, or we’re strictly laser focused on covering people in power that kind of misunderstands this power relationship that people on the ground in mass in large numbers wield power also.

Amanda Ripley: Hmm. It’s so interesting how. Yeah. The focus on the powerful, while well-intentioned. Right. Has this unintended consequence of giving them more power. So there’s really interesting research on how horserace coverage of politics, who’s up, who’s down actually suppresses the vote because the news media isn’t talking about voters.

Amanda Ripley: Right. Or what they want or what they’re thinking about or how they’re making hard decisions about who to vote for or how to spend their money or how to deal with their kids. So so you end up with this, as David has said, self-fulfilling prophecy. And I worry about the same thing with a lot of the coverage of threats to democracy. You know, again, there’s important stories to be done here. But, you know, if you exaggerate the threat to democracy in the United States, we know from the research that people will not vote because why bother if it’s all a scam, if it’s rigged, if, you know, if I’m going to be in physical danger going to the polls, you know, so we have to be really careful about that so we don’t make it so that.

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Amanda Ripley: Here’s another important note. If we as journalists or news consumers want to protect democracy. One way to do that is to investigate and amplify the stories of how people are protecting democracy or trying to. That is news to news that matters.

David Bornstein: You know, I remember Iran survey that they did in 2016 where they were looking at what was going to predict the election, presidential election, and they found that people who strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, people like me have no say or dramatically more likely to vote for Donald Trump. And it had very little bearing on any of the other candidates, Republican or Democrat, and it was singularly predictive. The sense of powerlessness and voiceless ness was the thing, and it was across all demographics, all educational levels.

David Bornstein: And, you know, one of the stories that I love most that I’ve that I’ve covered over the years is this organization called Results, which is a grassroots lobby that trains ordinary citizens to go have meaningful conversations with congresspeople, with legislative directors. They come, they come really prepared. They bring chocolate chip cookies, and they talk to them substantively. And they have moved billions of dollars and interests. Most people don’t realize that citizens actually have power. Right. Right. We we don’t tell that story. And I would say very few people really deeply believe it in their belly. So when you hear these stories, you’re like, wow, I couldn’t I can’t believe that. That’s really interesting.

Amanda Ripley: Right. Like, if you talk to you know, if you talk to anyone, you know, I’m one of a hundred different countries. They will laugh in your face if you tell them that Americans have no power, that Americans have no agency. Now, that doesn’t. There aren’t huge disparities and big institutional problems. Right. And it’s also true that if if we don’t claim the agency we have, which means covering it, it will become true in the time we have left.

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Amanda Ripley: I want to ask you to both some more practical questions real quick. What can readers and listeners, you know, people out in the world who are consuming news, what can they do to encourage the kind of news for humans that we’re talking about or to amplify it? What can they do?

David Bornstein: I would say, you know, reach out to people in the news source that you cover and let them know that you’re interested in journalism. That helps you understand both the problems, what’s driving them and what can be done about them. And just, you know, keep on insisting through social media and all that. For better journalism, there’s a real opening now, a window of opportunity, especially at a time when we want audiences to pay for that, for the news, really gives people out there more leverage in terms of, you know, creating the product that really they’ll benefit from and they want.

Amanda Ripley: Here’s another insight. Journalists respond to positive feedback just like other humans. So the next time you see a news story, that leaves you feeling informed in all the best ways to send the reporter and the news outlet a little love. And next time you feel paralyzed by a deeply demoralizing story, maybe send a note asking them to please investigate responses to that very same problem. You might even, you know, casually refer them to some very cool places that can help them to do this, which we’ll link to in the show notes. Whatever you do, remember that you can also help by sharing news for humans in your own circles and social media channels so we can boost the traffic to the stories that really are making a difference.

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David Bornstein: If you have a platform and you communicate to an audience about any issue, incorporate more stories that create a sense of hope, agency and dignity, not just hammering away over and over at the news that focuses on the problem, recognizing that we could all be publishers to some degree today as well.

Amanda Ripley: Right. Right now, it’s easier in some ways now than than ever.

Amanda Ripley: Nicole anything else that you would suggest people could do?

Nicole Lewis: Yeah. I mean, I think people do have more access to the writers they follow on social media. Right. But we want to know what’s working. We want to know when a story strikes a chord with you. We want that feedback. It is actually useful, but I think there actually need to be more targeted systems and platforms for for soliciting that feedback too. So I think often about, you know, does it make sense? What would it look like for Slate and or my section or, you know, the newsroom across the board to be more of a listening organization so that there’s clear channels for people to give that feedback to us as simply as just saying when a story strikes a chord, when you feel like something is done, well, yeah, share it, you know. But reach out to that writer to say, Hey, here’s why I liked this. It gives us a little bit more to work off of to say, okay, this worked and for these reasons.

Amanda Ripley: Right. And not just when things don’t work. Right, but reach out when things are working.

Nicole Lewis: Don’t DM’s when you’re mad. Leave us alone, man.

Amanda Ripley: Yeah, right, right. Yeah. No, I think that’s a great idea. And I know this is going to sound self-serving, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean, one of the things I really love about this, this podcast is different than anything I’ve ever been part of, is that 90% of the shows are just responses to what problems that listeners are bringing us and want help with. Right? So it’s not I don’t get to decide what most of the shows are about. This is an exception, right? But nine times out of ten, it’s about what listeners bring us and and then we try to be helpful to them and they’re on the show with us, you know. So it’s not normal journalism and it’s not perfect. Right. But it is. I have to say, there is a loss of control as a journalist that I in the beginning was a little uncomfortable and I’d worry like, you know, it was too difficult of a problem. And and the producers, Derek and Rosie, would always defend the listener and always be like, I think we can be helpful to them. You know, I think we can make it work. And they were always right. They’re always right. So.

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Amanda Ripley: So some of this is a learning curve that we have to go on and have each other’s backs and try things. And they’re not always going to work, but giving up a little bit of that top down control so that listeners can really tell us what they need and we can try to be helpful to them and to everyone else is actually really much more fulfilling, I would say, than like my, my trying to impress my, my fellow reporters.

Amanda Ripley: But before we go, I do want to ask you real quick, do either of you have things that you do to protect your own sanity? Like, are there certain news outlets that you avoid or go to that maybe you find to be a little bit more designed for human consumption?

Nicole Lewis: I do, for sure. I mean, I, I don’t have Twitter or Instagram as apps on my phone thing. I think I found that I needed to create more friction for having to. Log in and use it through the browser. Otherwise, you’re just in an endless sort of spiral and it’s a great way to get information, but extremely overwhelming. An endless scroll of bad news a lot of the time.

Nicole Lewis: And then this is tricky because it means that I have been doing other things in really crucial news moments, but as much as I can to try to turn notifications off because again, like Washington Post and New York Times may think it’s breaking news and so important and they just got a ping me but honestly I don’t need to know all the time and then this is such a bad habit, but I used to be a person that would wake up and kind of grab my phone and again be on Twitter and read the news in bed first thing in the morning. And I just realized very quickly that that just really couldn’t happen anymore, that I actually needed better sort of sleep and wake up hygiene.

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Amanda Ripley: Yeah, I’m a big proponent of the $10, old fashioned alarm clock. That’s what I did. So that. Yeah, my phone’s not in my room. It’s awesome. Thank you for that, David.

Amanda Ripley: What do you do?

David Bornstein: I mean, it may sound self-serving, but I really love our solution story tracker. And sometimes, you know, on a regular basis, I just go to it and search under issues that I care about. And I’ll just read the headlines. I mean, obviously, there’s hundreds of stories that will come up with any issue. But just to see, just to constantly, you know, renew my faith that there’s all of these things happening out there that I don’t see, certainly doesn’t get put on CNN or something or the TV news. But knowing that people are out there doing smart things, you know, in meaningful ways against problems, and I find that reassuring. It’s kind of like knowing that there are people out there in the world that have my back or that have all of our backs, and it’s just makes it easier to go to sleep at night.

Amanda Ripley: Okay, that’s helpful. And hopefully we’ll see more and more as as more journalists get burned out on the old ways and more audience members tune out. We hope we can get them back. Nicole, anything you want to add before we wrap here?

Nicole Lewis: I don’t think so. This is great. Nourishing.

Amanda Ripley: Thank you to Nicole Lewis and David Bornstein for going under the microscope and helping us brainstorm how to improve the news. And thank you to all of you listeners who called and left us voicemails. We hope that this was refreshing for you as well, because at the end of the day, let’s be honest, we like to hate on the news media, but we need each other and we can’t have a functioning democracy without a functioning press. So let us know if you have a news source or a news dieting tip that we didn’t mention, and we’d love to include it on a later show. Send us a note at how to at slate.com or leave us a voicemail at 6464954001. How TO’s Executive Producer is Derek John Rosemary Belson produced this episode with help from Kevin Bendis. Mara Jacob is senior technical director. Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.