It used to be that avoiding the news was pretty easy. You just didn’t pick up a newspaper.

Then things got a little more complicated, because you had to avoid radio too. Then TV. But still, not too hard to do.

Even in the early internet period, avoiding news was still fairly easy. If you just didn’t dial in AOL, Compuserve, or Mindspring, your computer would remain as ignorant of the wider world as your coffee cup.

In the last few years, however, things have gotten much harder.

The advent of social media, with its instant access and ability to drive us to look at screens compulsively all day long, means it is very hard not to know what’s going on

And now smartphones, with their apps, are driving instant news right into our pockets. You’ve probably noticed that just about every app, including the Napa Valley Register and other news sites, is asking you whether you want to “allow notifications.”

If you say yes, then every time something important or interesting happens, your phone will buzz and a short message will appear, usually right on top of your lockscreen, so you can see at a glance what the story is.

This means that you get instant news if something happens – a natural disaster, a major crime, a momentous news event. And that’s generally a good thing.

But it leads to a new kind of complaint that we get. It used to be that people complained that newspapers didn’t have enough news, or that the news was old by the time it hit your doorstep.

In this digital era, however, news organizations are hearing that we’re telling too much too fast.

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The main place that this plays out is with live sporting events. With digital video recorders now ubiquitous in our homes, it is easier than ever to record live sports events and watch them later. The World Cup Finals is on during your work day? The Super Bowl conflicts with Johnny’s piano recital? No problem, we’ll record and watch later.

The problem is that such a strategy relies on complete ignorance of the results. It’s really hard to get excited by a game if you know the outcome in advance, particularly if it is unfavorable for your chosen team or participant.

We get it that this is frustrating, but as a practical matter, these kinds of phone notifications, known technically as “push alerts,” are here to stay. Even if the Register stopped sending them, other news organizations would keep doing them.

Why? Several reasons, all having to do with how the audience is looking at news these days and how online businesses pay the bills.

At the simplest level, it’s about the number of readers – the more eyeballs, the better our ad revenue. And in this digital era, the competition for eyeballs is fierce. National news organizations and non-news apps are competing directly with your local newspapers for readers in a way that was unimaginable even 15 or 20 years ago.

But it’s also about what’s called “reader engagement,” which simply means that we (and all websites and apps) want to develop a bond with readers, to show that we’re valuable and interesting so that you might buy our product or service (in our case, that you might consider subscribing).

These push alerts, therefore, are central to the survival of all kinds of websites and services and they’re not going away any time soon.

The good news is that there is a solution, one that only requires a few seconds of effort. All smart phones have some way of disabling notifications from your various apps, either across the board or individually. In the case of my iPhone, there is a setting called “do not disturb,” which turns off all calls, texts, and notifications. There’s also a notification function that allows me to turn off notifications while still getting calls and texts.

So if you really, really don’t want to know who won the ball game, or who came out on top at the bike or horse race, there is now an easy way to make sure you don’t get the news. And when it’s over, you can turn the notifications back on so you can stay in touch with the news and your favorite apps.

In a sense we’ve come full circle. In the old days, you just didn’t pick up the newspaper. These days, you just don’t pick up the phone.

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You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or sscully@napanews.com.



Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.