When All of New York City Stopped Reading the News at Once
Chronicling an Odd 17 Days in 1945
For 17 days in the summer of 1945 there was no news in New York City. Well, there were no newspapers. Well, it was hard to get a newspaper. (Sensationalism is a difficult habit to kick.)
The newspaper deliverymen were on strike. The walkout had been called for midnight on June 30, a Saturday night. Apparently many of the disgruntled workers couldn’t wait. According to the New York Times, something like a thousand men who were due to work that afternoon failed to report for duty. Some had called in sick. Many more just didn’t show up. The Times sarcastically reported three hundred deliverymen “struck by the epidemic.”
The deliverymen were equally droll. As they mingled on the picket line, according to the Times, “There was much horseplay, men asking each other: ‘Well, how d’ye feel, buddy?’ with the answer being, ‘Oh, I guess I shouldn’t have had that mayonnaise for lunch.’”
All told, 14 major papers were left without their usual means of distribution. According to an estimate in the New York Times, some 13 million customers in the city and surrounding area were deprived of their daily newspaper.
Bernard Berelson, the project director of Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, saw an opportunity. Berelson wasn’t just a behavioral scientist, he was the behavioral scientist; later in his varied and distinguished career, he would be instrumental in establishing the concept of the behavioral sciences, including coining the name behavioral sciences.
His initial passion, though, had been library sciences, in which he had earned his master’s and doctorate degrees. So when the deliverymen’s strike hit New York City’s newspapers, Berelson’s enduring fascination with reading and readers mingled with his research interest in public opinion to inspire him to study the public’s reaction to being deprived of their daily reading matter.
He quickly put together a plan. As the first week of the strike came to an end, Berelson dispatched research assistants around Manhattan to conduct in-depth interviews with 60 people affected by the strike.“I’ve been reading war news so much, I’ve had enough of it.”
The interviews included some scripted questions, but their primary purpose was simply to let people talk about what the newspaper meant to them, and how they felt about going without it. The sudden absence of people’s daily paper, Berelson figured, would bring its significance into sharp focus. “Such studies can most readily be done during a crisis period like that represented by the newspaper strike,” he wrote.“ People are not only more conscious of what the newspaper means to them during such a ‘shock’ period than they are under normal conditions, but they also find it easier to be articulate about such matters.”
Most of the people interviewed complained about being deprived of their regular reading material. By design, Berelson wanted to interview people who usually read the paper, so these were all people who were being forced to abstain from a regular pastime. But one of the questions Berelson asked was “Are there any reasons why you were relieved at not having a newspaper?” The answers revealed how torn some readers were about keeping up with the news.
“Papers and their news can upset my attitude for the whole day—one gruesome tale after the other,” a “middle-aged housewife” confessed. “It was rather a relief not to have my nerves upset by stories of murders, rape, divorce, and the war.” She contemplated the other uses she could put her time toward without the daily newspaper demanding to be read. “I think I’d go out more,” she mused,“ which would be good for me.”
Another interviewee had similar thoughts about better possible uses of his time.“ I usually spend my spare time reading the papers and put off reading books and studying languages or something that would be better for me,” he said, calling the paper “just escape trash.” Whether he was successfully pursuing those loftier habits in lieu of his daily newspaper is not reported.
The interviews revealed the compelling, almost addictive, and not always pleasurable quality keeping up with the news possesses for some people. “The typical scrupulousness of the compulsive character,” Berelson wrote, “is apparent in this case of a middle-aged waiter who went out of his way to read political comment with which he strongly disagreed.”
“I hate the policy of the Mirror,” the waiter complained, naming a particular columnist whom he particularly disagreed with, despite reading regularly. “It’s a pleasure not to read him.”
In other cases, Berelson reported, people were compelled to keep up with news of the war. By that point in the summer of 1945, Hitler was dead and Germany had surrendered, but the official armistice was still a few weeks away, as was the nuclear bombing of Japan. Some people forced themselves to follow the news out of obligation, Berelson said—as the least they could do for the war effort, or as a kind of atonement for the guilt of not doing more. It felt like her duty, a young housewife said, to follow the latest developments “for the boys—the spirit of it.”
Some people seemed to feel that keeping up with the war news was bad for their well-being.“ Under the stress and strain of wartime conditions my health was beginning to fail,” one said. Thanks to the newspaper delivery strike, she “enjoyed being able to relax a little.”
“I’ve been reading war news so much, I’ve had enough of it,” said another.
For these people, conflicted for one reason or another about following the news, the newspaper strike provided “a morally acceptable justification for not reading the newspaper as they felt compelled to do,” Berelson concluded. Though they wouldn’t voluntarily have given up their newspaper, “once the matter was taken out of their hands, they were relieved.”
Does this sound familiar? Feeling compelled to keep up with the news, even while suspecting that it isn’t good for you. Suspecting that your time could be better spent. Perhaps even yearning for the imagined tranquility of simply tuning it out.
As I write this, the world is not at the tail end of a devastating world war, as it was during the 1945 strike—but if you follow the news closely enough, it can feel like it. A relentless procession of political corruption and disorder, war, famine, global warming, disease outbreaks—one crisis after another. Each story seems important at the time. But the next day’s news brings a fresh scandal or tragedy to learn about. It never ends.
And the news seems to be everywhere now, in a way that it wasn’t before. It’s hard to avoid when the smartphone in your pocket buzzes with breaking news at any moment of the day. Back in 2002, researchers coined the term ambient news. Even then, news had already become something that we expect to be available just about everywhere, free of charge, and free of effort, the researchers said. “News is, in a word, ambient,” they wrote, “like the air we breathe.”
Ambient news may be convenient when you want to hear the news, but what about when you don’t? Unlike the air we breathe, sometimes it’s nice to take a break from constant news of chaos and discord. Yet, “escaping the news is as difficult as escaping advertisements,” wrote another scholar, invoking a more conflicted comparison. Ads can be useful when you’re in the market for a new laundry detergent or cell phone carrier, but sometimes it’d be nice to watch or browse without the constant interruptions.
So maybe escaping the news has a nice ring to it. According to a 2018 Pew Research public opinion poll, around seven out of ten Americans say they “are worn out by the amount of news” these days. Likewise, in 2010, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism asked people if they often felt “overloaded with the amount of news available these days.” Around seven out of ten felt at least somewhat overloaded; only three in ten said “not at all.”
The Associated Press commissioned a different kind of study in 2007, employing a team of anthropologists to analyze in depth 18 young people’s news habits. They found that “news fatigue” was a problem for almost all of the young people they studied. “It’s a nonstop machine, just churning information out,” said one of their subjects.“It doesn’t matter what it’s about … it’s just churning.”
Think pieces about the dangers of “news addition,” and the joys of kicking the habit, have proliferated. The instructional website wikiHow.com offers a helpful guide titled “3 Ways to Curb Your Addiction to News.” “Abstaining from seeking news will likely be challenging due to the constant influx of news that fills online, TV and radio channels,” it warns. “Divert your eyes and ears from news sources and focus on your work or an activity.” Seek help from family and friends, it suggests, or simply “turn it off.”
More generally, digital detox has become a popular buzzword, implying that toxic technology has dulled our intellects and diminished our attention spans. An article in the New York Times bears the subtitle “How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.” Unwittingly reinforcing the parallel between inescapable news and advertising, the photo accompanying the article shows its author sitting on the subway, contentedly reading an advertising poster. Meanwhile, the only other passenger on the subway car looks down at her phone. Presumably her brain remains broke.
Some companies will gladly take your money in exchange for helping you live without your smartphone for a few hours or days. Lack of Wi-Fi or phone reception has become a selling point for some vacation destinations. If you find yourself in New York City when you get bored of staring at ads on the subway you could indulge in a two-hour Digital Wellness Escape treatment at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. “Concentrating on the head, eyes, neck, shoulders, hands and feet, this restorative treatment aims to ease the stress and strain resulting from the frequent use of digital devices,” the promotional material boasts. Only $345.
So, if you count yourself among the overwhelmed, it’s easy to imagine yourself in the place of one of Berelson’s interviewees relieved at the sudden absence of news in their lives.
Except, those people were in a small minority. The more common reaction, by far, was displeasure, occasionally even despondency, and in many cases an active effort to get the news.
While newspapers were missing from mailboxes and newsstands, some publishers kept printing daily issues throughout the strike, selling copies directly to customers at the publisher’s offices. This proved remarkably popular.“Probably no strike in the history of labor relations in this community has so angered the public.”
The Times, for example, had initially set up a makeshift sales desk in the main lobby of their building on 43rd Street. The number of takers greatly exceeded expectations. “A news-hungry public swamped the newspaper offices for copies of the Sunday papers,” the front page of the Times declared the Monday after the strike began. “The difficulty of handing the crowds made it necessary later to set up the large counter in the truck entrances.”
The article boasted of how “buyers arrived afoot, in taxis, in private cars and on crutches. A ‘parade of taxis’ formed on West 43rd Street late Saturday as after-theater crowds stopped for their papers on their way home.” One purchaser, a headline bragged, had driven all the way from New Haven just to pick up a copy. “All copies of the limited editions printed were snapped up during the day by the scores of thousands of persons who traveled to publication offices to purchase them.”
The Times’ truck-depot sales desk became a 24-hour service for the duration of the strike, and the sales figures became a running theme of its strike coverage. The figures climbed from 42,500 on the first day of the strike to more than 100,000 on July 11. On the penultimate day of the strike, the Times reportedly sold 155,000 copies. “Despite the length of the strike, the public showed no weariness yesterday in trooping to publication offices to buy papers,” the Times reported. “As on other nights before press time, thousands assembled in long lines to wait for the appearance of the papers.”
The day the strike ended, the Times reported, “Deliverers of afternoon papers were back at their jobs by noon, and soon thereafter the news-hungry public was swamping newsstands for its favorite dailies.” More pointedly, the Herald Tribune asserted that “probably no strike in the history of labor relations in this community has so angered the public.”
From Bad News by Rob Brotherton. Used with the permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2020 by Rob Brotherton.