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What to know about what to know

My friends and I often joke about the omnipresence of “what to know” and “everything you need to know,” abbreviated as “EYNTK” in our chats, as headline crutches. If you read enough articles online, you’ll encounter such a headline. Frankly, the construction’s lazy, but most people are lazy.

Even today, the home page of The Wall Street Journal had two such headlines above the fold about two entirely different stories. One was a synopsis of Kevin McCarthy’s failed attempt to become Speaker of the House in the latest session of Congress; the other was a second-day story about heart conditions following a Buffalo Bills player collapsing on the field during Monday Night Football.

These stories have nothing to do with one another, except they were the two biggest stories of the day, and some skilled editor decided “what to know” was the best, most concise construction to sell each story.

It’s a marriage made in heaven, really; the economy of words suggests you should convey as much as you can in as few words as possible, and most people don’t have the time or wherewithal to read anything in depth. Thus, we land on “what to know” as a harbinger of simplified overview. It’s Axios personified in a three-word phrase.

It’s not just me anecdotally noticing the pervasive nature of this construction, either; if you check out Google Trends for “what to know” since data was available (2004), you’ll see, as pictured at the top of this entry, that over time, interest has steadily risen from 19 on a scale of 0-100 to 80 at present, peaking at 100 sometime in April 2022. Perhaps Americans decided they didn’t need to know any more sometime around mid-Spring last year.

For perspective: If you could have invested $10,000 in “what to know” back in January 2004, your $10,000 would be worth $42,105, just behind the $47,788 your $10,000 would have netted in the S&P 500 over that same interval.

That’s a pretty stupid hypothetical, since you can’t bet on or invest in the use of a phrase. And comparatively, $10,000 invested in Apple stock in January 2004 would be worth about $3.25 million today. But you can bet on people being pretty lazy, and often, stupid.

The real unknowable is which is the chicken and which is the egg here: Did readers steadily need to know what they needed to know and editors fulfilled demand, or did editors decide that readers needed to know what they needed to know and condition them to seek it?

In all likelihood, a bit of column A and a bit of column B; it’s easy to criticize media for writing crappy headlines and pumping out dreck, but if people didn’t demand and respond, editors wouldn’t keep publishing. It’s safer to stick with what you know.

Same goes for “what to know” and its variants: There are known what to knows, and unknown what to knows. It’s the unknown what to knows that should scare us.

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