Brainjunk and the killing of the internet mind

Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of food books including the The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules, summarized his philosophy of eating quite simply. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The idea was to spend more on quality, and avoid the sorts of junk food that are deeply unhealthy for our physical bodies.

I think it’s well past time to borrow that philosophy for our brains. Today, we eat a rich and decadent buffet of brainjunk — of useless tweets, of photos of people we don’t know, of articles that were written in ten minutes to stoke the content boiler. The dopamine cycle ensures that we keep on craving more content, the exact same dopamine cycle that makes a Happy Meal a happy meal.

So let me propose a little framework: “Enjoy content. Not too much. Mostly paid”.

I was thinking about this brainjunk challenge as the world has burned down this week at two of America’s most storied publications.

On Monday, we learned that Newsweek fired its editor-in-chief and executive editor, along with Celeste Katz, a reporter who had covered the news of the Manhattan DA’s office raiding Newsweek headquarters a few weeks ago. Following the raid, the founder and chairman of holding company Newsweek Media Group, along with the company’s finance director (who happens to be the chairman’s wife), have left the building as well.

Meanwhile in Southern California, we have witnessed the complete breakdown of the Los Angeles Times, which has been roiled with conflict since the installation of Lewis D’Vorkin as editor last October. Last week, Tronc, the parent company of the Times, fired D’Vorkin along with publisher Ross Levinsohn, the former for presumed mismanagement of the newsroom, the latter presumably for alleged sexual harassment at a former employer.

This week, sources and leaks indicate that Tronc is attempting to sell the paper to Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire who made his money in the biotech space, and who has been attempting to buy the paper from Tronc for more than a year now. Those talks are still on-going.

If old soldiers don’t die and just fade away, then media companies are pretty much the opposite: they die, and they die in spectacular, political fashion. SpaceX this is not.

If it wasn’t clear, we are no longer talking about small town newspapers losing their classifieds revenue and going belly up. The internet and its disruption of traditional print business models has now reached the watershed of publications like Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, household names with large — paying — subscriber bases who loved their Pulitzer Prizes.

It’s not enough. And frankly, nothing is enough in a world in which readers crave brainjunk at the expense of all other quality content. People want free content and they want a lot of it, and media companies have been more than happy to oblige. More articles, more videos, all cheaply made and distributed through the purveyors of brainjunk like Facebook and Twitter.

Lewis D’Vorkin, before joining the Los Angeles Times, was chief product officer at Forbes, where he pioneered the open platform model that has juiced Forbes traffic while tarnishing that publication’s brand equity. That’s why Tronc hired him — he understood brainjunk and just how lucrative it could potentially be.

It is the deep irony of our times that readers, often deeply educated, will shell out $30 for a meal in New York or San Francisco while paying thousands in rent, only to avoid paying a few bucks a month for a publication, let alone ten. The monthly price for the New York Times is the price of a single cocktail these days in Manhattan.

The bulk of my friends don’t pay for subscriptions. The bulk of the internet doesn’t pay for subscriptions. People will gladly spend hours a day reading brainjunk, to avoid even the slightest expense that might improve the quality of what they are reading. And so, even storied publications are going to fall by the wayside so we can read about “7 Tips on How To Improve Media.”

If you want to consume McDonald’s, be my guest. If you want to read whatever LinkedIn calls news, go right ahead. But if you actually want to learn, to improve your mind, to improve your awareness and understanding of the world, you have to shell out. Start paying. If you’re about to read articles for an hour or two, start thinking about what that time is worth and whether you can spend more to maximize the quality of what you are reading.

Enjoy content. Not too much. Mostly paid. And if a publication — yes, including TechCrunch — doesn’t offer paid options, ask for them. Force publishers to take your money and align themselves with your interests over advertisers. Break those dopamine habits, and end brainjunk.

Now, go click on a dozen articles so TC can make a dollar, okay?

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