This annus horribilis, and what comes next

Last week, I took some time off in an attempt to shake off my frazzled post-election state. While I was washing dishes one day, I caught up on a recent episode of the tech podcast Reply All. (I banned myself from consuming breaking news while I was off.) In the episode, Alex Goldman, one of the show’s hosts, explored the “Hedonometer”—a tool, designed by data scientists at the University of Vermont, that, for the last twelve years, has aimed to quantify collective happiness by running tweets through a linguistic analysis. (“Laughter” is a happy word whereas “suicide” is not; the online meaning of some words, such as “thirsty,” has changed over time.) 

My initial reaction was to have some questions about the Hedonometer. (What about tweets not in English? What about the many people who, quite sensibly, don’t use Twitter, and what about the ways in which Twitter changes its users’ behavior? How can you know what a word connotes without understanding the full richness of its context?) Once Goldman started discussing the tool’s findings for 2020, however, they hit me like a punch to the stomach. On March 12, as the crisis caused by COVID-19 really started to bite in the US and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, the Hedonometer recorded its saddest-ever day, and it did so again on May 31, amid the mass protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis. “We keep setting these records, right?” Peter Dodds, a researcher behind the Hedonometer, told Goldman. He namechecked past awful days online: the Boston Marathon bombing, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas shooting. “That was so extreme,” Dodds said. “But then we get to COVID-19 and George Floyd—finding new depths, essentially, for this kind of collective-wellbeing measure. You know, this is a traumatized population.”

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Suddenly—standing in my kitchen rinsing suds out of a tea-stained mug on what should have been a vacation day—the full awfulness of 2020 properly, emotionally hit me for the first time. I can’t really explain why it took Reply All, of all things, to trigger that. I have undoubtedly—as a white person with a stable job and a pool of family and friends who have, for the most part, escaped the ravages of COVID—been shielded from the worst of this year. But I have still been in a position to experience at least some small measure of its awfulness—both personally (I am confident, though not certain, that I had a bruising case of COVID earlier in the year, and I spent the summer grappling with lingering symptoms that at least closely resembled those associated with the phenomenon known as “long COVID”) and professionally, in the sense that, as the writer of this daily newsletter, I’ve had to inhale an unrelenting firehose of grim news and process it into something resembling coherent, proportionate analysis. 

I’ve written before about the disorienting difficulty of processing the present news cycle, and the collective grief that lurks beneath—and sometimes breaks—the surface of so much coverage. I haven’t, I hope, been oblivious to any of it. So why the sudden emotional reaction now? My best guess—consistent with my past states of mind and inescapable identity as a British person—is that 2020 finally punched through some subconscious repression mechanism that I had previously dared broach only intellectually. Before, amid my exhaustion and sporadic gasping for breath, it was perhaps all I could do to carry on and keep processing information.

Of course, I’m not exceptional in this regard—far from it. Recently, Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the International Center for Journalists surveyed 1,406 English-speaking media workers from 125 countries about their experiences of the pandemic, and found that a clear majority of them were struggling with its “psychological and emotional impacts”: forty-one percent of respondents said they were experiencing increased anxiety, thirty-eight percent exhaustion and burnout, thirty-five percent difficulty sleeping, thirty-four percent a sense of helplessness, and thirty-three percent dark and negative thoughts. (Julie Posetti, Emily Bell, and Peter Brown summarized the findings for CJR; the results of similar surveys conducted in other languages are forthcoming.) As Marta Martinez reported recently for OneZero, many social-media managers, who have found themselves on the frontlines of responding to the news cycle and its attendant online conversation, are at breaking point; student journalists, too, have struggled with their mental health as they try to balance academic work with their responsibility to cover COVID on campus, which often falls to them alone given the hollowing out, in many places, of professionalized local news. As Poynter’s Doris Truong wrote recently, journalists of color, in particular, have experienced a “trying year” of unremunerated “emotional labor,” and have led the way in demanding a representational and philosophical reckoning at the highest levels of newsrooms. Reporters and other staff across the industry have been furloughed or laid off or seen their pay cut, or all three at different moments. 

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Today, CJR is beginning the rollout of a new magazine, “What Now? The press is forced to reimagine itself,” that grapples with the multifaceted fallout from this terrible year for journalists and journalism, and maps out what might come next. In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be publishing new features and columns exploring this moment of transition, including Maya Binyam on media unions’ push to diversify newsrooms; Ruth Margalit on the shift from the shared office to remote working, and the impact that has had; and Jack Herrera, Abe Streep, Darryl Holliday, and others on future paths for the industry, from public funding for news to the efforts to root journalism in the communities that it serves. (These and other stories will roll out on CJR.org, and I’ll be linking to them in this newsletter as and when they get published.) As Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, writes in a forthcoming editor’s note for the magazine, this moment is an opportunity as well as a crisis. Our industry needs to be “rebuilt and reconceived,” from its financial foundations to the basic ways in which we tell stories and decide who gets to tell them.

We hope that the magazine will help our readers—journalists and non-journalists alike—think through what it means to work in and consume news right now. The work of journalism has rarely been more important or more difficult, and for all the many flaws of this industry and those who populate it, we deserve to be able to approach our craft from a stable, equitable footing, and not tenuously, while trying desperately not to fall through all the cracks. We can’t control the news the world throws at us, nor the swings of the Hedonometer. But we can do a better job of controlling how prepared we all are—intellectually and emotionally—to make sense of it at all. For now, for me, there’s Reply All.

Below, more on 2020 and the magazine:

  • From the magazine: This morning, we published the first feature from the magazine. Clio Chang explores whether Substack, the newsletter platform that has recently attracted numerous big-name journalists (most recently: Matthew Yglesias, formerly of Vox), is helping to create a more equitable media industry or merely reproducing old flaws. “Writing is often considered an individualistic enterprise, but journalism is a collective endeavor,” Chang writes. “And that is the paradox of Substack: it’s a way out of a newsroom—and the racism or harassment or vulture-venture capitalism one encountered there—but it’s all the way out, on one’s own.” 
  • Will the next decade be even worse?: Graeme Wood, of The Atlantic, profiles Peter Turchin, an academic at the University of Connecticut at Storrs who “believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.” Based on models analyzing the last ten-thousand years of human history, Turchin has long predicted a coming “‘age of discord,’ civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced,” Wood writes. “In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.”
  • COVID, I: The US is in the middle of a terrible COVID-19 surge, with confirmed daily case counts now routinely topping one hundred thousand, and hospitals in many areas overwhelmed, as The Atlantic’s Ed Yong wrote last week. Over the weekend, Jodi Doering, an ER nurse in South Dakota, posted a Twitter thread that went viral in which she related her experience with patients who insist that COVID isn’t real. “These people really think this isn’t going to happen to them,” Doering writes. “And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated. It’s like a fucking horror movie that never ends. There’s no credits that roll. You just go back and do it all over again.”
  • COVID, II: In February, with COVID-19 cases surging in Italy, the 2020 edition of the International Journalism Festival, a popular annual gathering in Perugia, was cancelled—an early media-industry portent of mass cancellations to come. Over the weekend, the festival’s organizers announced that the 2021 edition of the festival, which was slated for April, has been cancelled, too. As the Tow Center’s Bell noted on Twitter, by the time the festival returns, “it is hard to imagine how different things will be for journalism.”


Other notable stories:

Podcast: Public Editors: Why even good reporting no longer impacts the vote

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.