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I Don't Need the <i>New York Times</i> to Tell Me What to Read

02/27/2014 12:26 EST | Updated 04/29/2014 05:59 EDT

"All the news that's fit to print," proudly declares the New York Times' jaunty motto. Indeed, while the Times has certainly erred in the past, and has been surpassed by the Daily Mail in global traffic, it remains the Western world's newspaper of record.

From the news, to the analysis, to the criticism, you'll find writers covering a panoply of issues in an admirably lucid tone, often imbued with a depth that may only be afforded to correspondents for a newspaper with unusually deep pockets. It is the last great bastion of balanced news coverage, democratically covering issues in the age of the media buffet that counts Fox, MSNBC, blogs, talk radio, and the tailored twitter feed among its most popular dishes. Even those who hold the Times to a higher standard than your humble author are likely to agree that the newspaper, warts and all, brings to mind Winston Churchill's quip about democracy: "[it's] the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Since the Times' website underwent a significant redesign in early January, its "Recommended For You" section has considerably grown in prominence. Perhaps, only rightly so -- the last time that nytimes.com had received a meaningful facelift was in 2006. Since then, the web has become more interactive, and the advent of tablets has led to a greater multimedia focus. The sheer quantity of content has proliferated tremendously over the past eight years, and a redesign which lets readers focus on the stories that matter most to them -- providing a set of virtual blinders, if you will -- seems to be a welcome change.

Subscribe to the Times for A. O. Scott's film criticism but don't care about science coverage? Banish the thought of the Higgs Boson from your mind forever. Are you a political junkie who is partial to Op-Eds but can't stand to hear what some French designer thinks about sneakers? The style section vanishes faster than you can say "Isabel Marant wedges." The trend is old hat -- Google News, to draw a source at random, has been using personal news recommendations since 2011, and hasn't looked back since.

Recently, the Times' laudably levelheaded public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote about the "Recommended" section's growing real estate. Readers had, according to Sullivan, complained about the move's impinging on their privacy; some noted that they were sufficiently competent to choose the articles they read on their own; others did not want their reading preferences monetized.

Although the last worry is largely irrelevant -- newspapers, as Sullivan politely points out, have been making money from advertising to readers' tastes for as long as the business has been around -- the ubiquitous privacy concerns of today are a different story. Still, the Times tracks no information above that collected by other newspapers, and only uses your data in-house. Your browser's cookies are certainly more damaging.

As made-to-measure media become commonplace, however, a larger and more insidious trend is snaking its way through our news consumption habits. By now, we've seen that the infinite supply of information outlets provides readers with an aggregate view of any single issue: look up vaccines, and you'll immediately find that in spite of a naïve and gullible contingent of shamefully ignorant advocates, MMR inoculations save countless lives; 9/11 truthers and moon landing denialists are, likewise, swiftly dismissed with a few keystrokes. Unfortunately, we also know that our psychological wiring isn't particularly compatible with this breadth of choice. We want our ideas simple, and we want them pre-digested. MSNBC viewers who tune in daily to have progressive pundits regurgitate their own opinions at them don't switch to Fox. Fox News stalwarts, meanwhile, refuse to break the conservative circle jerk to watch left-leaning coverage. The tyranny of choice makes dullards of us all.

Our desire to keep things simple is aggravated by a mental phenomenon known as the confirmation bias. Psychological research has established that we harbor an innate tendency to seek confirmatory evidence of our pre-established conclusions when acquiring new information. If you believe in something, you'll often filter out evidence to the contrary without any conscious awareness of doing so -- in the same way that political pundits do when writing two antipodean perspectives about a single event. News that's music to your ears may be grating to your neighbor, making it even less likely that readers and viewers will question the partisan media.

But doesn't the Times rise above the partisan fray, striving to embody the "Fair and Balanced" motto that Fox abandoned in all but name? Undoubtedly, the newspaper is, at the very least, as even-handed as any other media outlet. Therein lies the danger. Times subscribers expect to read the most reliable narrative of what's happening in the world. If the amount of daily media choices seems overwhelming, the newspaper's coverage provides some solace, being one of the safest bets for balanced reporting.

Times readers are loyal precisely because they are can allow themselves to cut down on news consumption elsewhere, as long as the pillar of print remains true to its history. Personal recommendations are useful, but their growing importance will mean that readers will be subjected to a steadily shrinking news horizon. Such downsizing dovetails neatly with our innate biases -- a combination that does little more than reaffirm our ignorance. Surely, the newspaper that publishes all the news that's fit to print can aspire to more.

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