for some time the most popular post on my blog – last updated 26 March 2023 (when, in an unexpected turn of events, there was a thread about this page on Hacker News)
TL;DR – start with CNN, 68k News, or CBC first…
- CNN really is no longer as bad as you perhaps though (and actually, even their full graphics site, when using an ad blocker, is very reasonably designed)
- http://68k.news is a text-only version of Google News. You can choose the ‘edition’ (country) for local headlines. Articles from multiple sources are grouped by topic.
- CBC you’ve probably not heard of before and is definitely worth a look
https://lite.cnn.com/en (Cable News Network, now headquartered in New York)
https://www.cbc.ca/lite/ (Canada’s public service broadcaster).
- plenty of stories (40)+
- more varied content than there used to be – considerably less focus on Donald Trump, for example.
- very fast, clean presentation
- extremely rare to have HTML->text conversion issues (and if anything, this has got better). It’s a pity occasional subheadings aren’t bolded, but still.
- stories presented in a random order with no categorisation / topics
- index page doesn’t provide date or timestamp, individual stories do
- opinion items mixed with reporting (they’re hardly alone in doing this, though)
often sometimes no author name(s) on full article
- no direct link back to full versions of each item
- the live audio stream on the Lite site is nearly always missing/broken – but you can get it, you’ll need to go to this page on the main site: https://edition.cnn.com/audio (last tested Nov 2022) where you can choose between the US, Spanish, International English streams . You can also listen to CNN on the TuneIn app, though weirdly it’s geoblocked from the UK on the TuneIn website.
68k News pros/cons:
- the widest range of stories
- only service with ability to select by country
- they may not have the news source you want
- you may find it slightly annoying having to read repeated headlines or headlines from sources you don’t like, or having to choose which newspaper/website you want for every story
- non-article content and other clutter like newsletter signups may not be stripped out
- a world news page
- high-quality: includes stories from Reuters and Associated Press
- nevertheless a bit limited, you may want more news
- uniquely, a button to allow to you load any individual images you wish to view
- links at bottom of page to equivalent page on full size
- an actual release notes page!
Is there a text-only or low graphics BBC News website?
No, not for years. Don’t waste your time searching.
There is one exception. The old BBC On This Day website – like vast swathes of BBC content, abandoned for years – does still exist in low graphics format. You need to choose your own date, but all the linked articles still work. So if you want to read stories between WW2 and 2005…
Could a (paid) news app with an ‘offline’ mode be what you really want?
It might be the time pages take to load is what’s most annoying you, or – to use western countries as an example – you’re often an in area with congested 3/4G masts, or where wifi is spotty.
Certain apps, such as the Financial Times (both the full subscription, and FT Edit which is a much cheaper daily curated set of interesting articles rather than rolling news) will automatically download a full set of stories each time you open the app, and you can then instantly view those regardless of connection status. (The FT gives you a subtle prompt that offline mode is ready). Because the articles are loaded within an app rather than a browser, it will also feel quicker. The disadvantage is it’s more likely articles will contain ads which you can’t block as on a website (though ads may disappear in airplane mode).
For what it’s worth, I’ve found reading cached offline stories in airplane mode quite productive / therapeutic.
Could a smaller/lighter phone be what you really want?
This will be more comfortable for holding for longer periods of time, and will create less glare in the dark because the display is smaller.
Use it in conjunction with your browser’s “reader” mode, which will strip out navigation, ads etc. and allow you to change the font size/style and background colour. You can set the browser to automatically use reader mode for all articles on specific websites. I even do this for text only sites like CNN Lite, just because the font size is more comfortable, or it’s nicer to have an entirely black background in the dark.
For Apple users – the lightest and most comfortable device for any text only site is the iPod Touch – it’s only 88 grams and is extremely comfortable to hold. It was discontinued in 2022, so get one second hand (easy), the earlier the installed iOS version the better your battery life will be. Just don’t use it for anything that would be a security risk, and/or leave it at home.
Alternatively, get iPhone SE (personally used/recommended – and the cheapest iPhone. Also the only one left with with an LCD display, which may actually reduce headaches for those people who don’t like OLED, especially those who tend to use their screen on minimal brightness, which is when OLED flickers the most). If you don’t mind OLED and would like a phone with more screen space (no bezels) and a more advanced camera, get an iPhone 13 Mini. It’s more expensive though.
Could an e-reader be what you really want?
(I discuss “save-it-later” apps, reading lists etc. later.)
A Kindle will give you:
- a dedicated email address you can send documents to
- if you combine your e-ink Kindle with the iOS Kindle app, you can load a web page and then use the iOS share screen to send it to a Kindle in 4-5 clicks. The way this works is the text is converted on-device, which means if you are using a site behind a paywall, provided you’ve browsed to the actual page (rather than long-pressing on a link and sharing that) it won’t be a problem and you’ll get the full text. Curiously, Amazon’s server then makes a request for the CSS file before sending the document, but it doesn’t request the actual contents again. The only irritation is this method takes 4-5 clicks each time and gets annoying if you are sending a lot at once.
- Use pushtokindle.fivefilters.org on the desktop. This is nicely designed and lets you preview what you’re sending before you send it. Again the conversion is client side so paywalls aren’t an issue. It makes a nice job of including images and removing cruft from the header/footer (though a well semantically coded source site – think <article> tags etc.) makes this a lot easier.
Kindle benefits: distraction free, front-lit rather than back lit, so more comfortable on eyes, adjustable font size (e.g. set it larger when you are tired), one-tap dictionary (which is a huge time-saver), may be more comfortable to hold than a smartphone due to a combination of overall weight / weight distribution over larger surface area / texture of the device.
In terms of content, you may also find you enjoy breaking up periods of news reading with books – not necessarily because of the topics you are reading about (and for the record about 95% of what I read is also non-fiction) but if you’re reading a succession of shorter articles, there is considerable mental load involved in the choice of deciding what to read next. With a book, it’s much more linear and you can kind of ‘sink into’ it. (Perhaps this is why ‘long form’ journalism has become popular online in recent years – again, this is usually best enjoyed with an e-reader.)
Frankly, pushing article after article to an e-reader, remembering to download them, then reading them later isn’t very time efficient (and is less so the shorter the items are). You may also tire of a workflow where you reading headlines or half-read articles once in a browser, then come back to them again on your e-reader. It may make the whole thing more work, even if the reading experience itself is more comfortable.
Downloading full newspapers / magazines to an eReader:
You can buy a Kindle subscription to many newspapers/magazines. The quality/presentation varies depending, mostly, on how much effort the publisher has made. Larger publications (ahem, The Times) can even crash the Kindle.
However you can also use pressreader.com to manually save a day’s edition of whichever paper/magazine you want and copy it to your device. It’s not perfect – formatting errors are much more common, and it’s a bit slow to generate the file as everything gets watermarked – but it does work, and if you have a library card, hundreds of publications are available free.
If you’re a Facebook user…
Sites which aren’t strictly text only, but I highly, highly recommend anyway:
- a really nice (friction – minimal clicks – and distraction/clutter free – minimal menus etc) way to read a full newspaper
- nice typography
- low bandwidth – typically 1 small image per page
Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Context
Great if you want to escape the mainstream news agenda, where every news organisation is relentlessly flogging the same story. The Reuters foundation is a charitable part of the Thomson Reuters agency and focuses on under-reported news and regions. Often these are stories you won’t read elsewhere but which are still trustworthy and with excellent photograph.
They cover an increasingly wide range of topics and there is bound to be something you are interested in (e.g. climate, technology, cities…) and which I think would appeal to people across the political spectrum – i.e. you can read it without feeling you’re being lectured. Also, if you’re bored with or not interested in a particular topic, just start from one of the other index pages and you’ll avoid it.
In terms of the design, yes there are (good) photographs, but overall it’s very clean and won’t overwhelm you or your mobile device. Navigation, search and tagging are simple and reliable.
There are opinions but they’re not clearly separated from the journalism and “thoughtful” rather than “shouty”.
- Secondly, I’d recommend BBC Future – this is produced by BBC Worldwide (nothing to do with BBC News Online). They publish less frequently but the articles have more depth.
What you should also be doing:
- use your browser’s reader mode (see above)
- use a save-for-later app, such as Apple’s Reading List, Pocket, Instapaper… (as an Apple user who tries to stay in Safari as much as possible, I’ve switched from Instagram to Reading List because there’s less friction.)
The (theoretical) benefits to text only news sites:
- Save the time waiting for a page to load, or in situations where bandwidth is extremely limited, the difference between being able to access a site and not retrieve a page at all (better chance of success on 3G networks)
- Quicker to browse a list of headlines on a single page than navigate through a long homepage of photos and video thumbnails.
- Save bandwidth used, preserve more of your mobile data allowance
- Increase battery life on mobile devices (there’s little or no JS to load/process, so CPU load is reduced, and because the data transferred over the network is so much smaller the wi-fi or cellular radio on a phone or tablet is on only briefly and uses less power.
- Less distraction (from other elements of the page) more immersion in content (like reading a book)
- No iframes / social media oEmbeds
- Usually no advertising
- Usually no irritations like cookie warnings
- Overall, less stressful
- NPR – formatting is a bit cruder and only
10 stories on homepage (tip: click ‘News’ and you get 15) (they’ve added more)
- BizToc Light – business news website (links are to full content on external sites)
The Reuters app isn’t strictly text only but it does have an offline mode and supports iOS dark mode.