To try to quantify this pressure, I timed myself on October 15. My goal was to read my three papers in thirty-nine minutes. I started at 7:57 a.m. Took a deep breath and opened The Washington Post.
Luckily, it wasn’t a day for big news. The lead story was about the Dow Jones Industrial Average cracking 10,000. As a former business editor, I’m familiar with that non-story, the market breaking through an essentially meaningless if round number. Skip. The aforementioned VMI feature, with big art: read to jump and stop. The Obama administration proposes $250 cost-of-living increase for Social Security recipients, even though living expenses actually dropped year-over-year. Interesting story, well-handled; a quick read. An analytical feature on the Medicare Advantage program. Skip. A faux-trend story about people who don’t use Twitter. Skip. I read all the keys to the inside stories and paused on one for a home-section story offering tips for how to furnish a newborn’s nursery; that one took me back fifteen years. I smiled and turned the page.
I covered the whole of the A section in eighteen minutes. I had to read favorite columnists: Dana Milbank’s Washington Sketch, David Ignatius on the op-ed page. In between I surveyed heds and photos. I read the first five graphs of a story about the Justice Department, the entirety of a piece about the U.S. strengthening its ties with the Chinese military (a special interest, since I covered China), and an analysis of North Korea’s then-recent spate of friendly gestures. Tom Toles’s editorial cartoon was dessert.
On to the next course: Metro. That got four minutes. Read to the jump of a section-front story about a fifteen-year-old boy killed in a gun battle, sped through an obit for Bruce Wasserstein, the Wall Street dealmaker, and glanced, as I always do, at the photos in the paid obits. I frowned at the weather page. It’s printed so small it’s useless, a sure sign I am getting older. (Apparently, others felt the same way, prompting Post editors to restore the weather info to its former, larger footprint. It had gotten squeezed in a recent redesign.)
Style and Sports got four minutes each. Style often has a long feature that catches my attention, but not today. Sports had a column by one of my favorites, Thomas Boswell, so I was miffed that I had to rush. Lucky for me, my other favorite sports columnist, Tracee Hamilton, wasn’t writing that day. Home and the District Extra got three minutes apiece.
Despite feeling like I’d run through the Post at a sprint, I had only three minutes left of my thirty-nine-minute allotment. I skimmed headlines in The Wall Street Journal, taking mental notes on a few stories I wanted to go back to. That took four minutes. I was already over time and hadn’t even looked at New York Times. Well, I couldn’t help myself. I speed-read my way through in fifteen minutes, feeling wholly unsatisfied and defeated. How do people do this?, I wondered.
On October 16, a much better newspaper day, I gave myself no time limit. I started the Post at 8 a.m. and finished one hour and seventeen minutes later. I polished the other two papers off in an additional hour, skipping their versions of stories I’d already read and concentrating on their enterprise offerings. I felt informed, entertained, and in touch. In celebration, I attempted New York Timescrossword right then, instead of waiting until after dinner.
My experience leaves me in a quandary about the future of newspapers. I believe in mass-market, big-city journalism; it’s what I grew up in, both at New York Newsday and at The Washington Post. It’s all that I know. But few people have the time to really experience the wonders of a newspaper. You have to commit to it, to devote the time, which gets harder and harder to do in our fractured, distracted, multimedia world.