News.me

Getting the News — Martin Nisenholtz

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and danah boydhere.)

This week we sat down with Martin Nisenholtz, former senior vice president, digital at the New York Times. The Times was one of the first print publications to really embrace what the Internet could offer journalism, and has proven itself able to both adapt to the changing web environment and grow into a very different kind of media company. Martin was with the Times from the very beginning of their digital strategy. He led the teams that created and developed the website, the Times emails, the mobile apps, the Twitter accounts, the paywall… the list goes on. He also was behind the decision to adopt Dave Winer’s RSS standard for news, which quickly made RSS the only standard for news syndication for many years. Martin saw the future of news years before the rest of us did. He was kind enough to come by our offices and tell us a little of what he knows — which includes not just an exhaustive understanding of user experience of news, but also what makes some news products work, while others fail.

How do you get your news throughout the day?

Of course, I’m obsessed with the Times website. I’m on it at least a dozen times on an average day, maybe more. That’s my central hub of news. We’ve really studied very hard how people use the Times website, and I tend to be one of these people who uses it almost as a traditional publication — in that the home page, to me, is a guide for what’s important.

Human-mediated content is important to me because it both introduces a hierarchy of importance as well as a kind of serendipity. On any given day, on the Times homepage, there will be things I expect to see there, and things I have totally no awareness of. Serendipity is really important, not because it’s necessarily signaling the most important stuff throughout the day, but because it gives you a breadth you don’t get if you’re tailoring your news to narrower and narrower categories.

A lot of people throughout the years have said to me, “Why don’t you focus more on personalization?” We do have personalization tactics — the most obvious one is our recommendation engine. But the thing about personalization is that if you take it to the extreme, it narrows your worldview in such a way as to be to me unhealthy. And so if all I was seeing was the stuff I could conceive of, I think I’d be a much narrower person.

I’m also a big fan of Twitter, so I get a lot of news from the people I follow on Twitter. And I really do like the visual impact of television, so I still watch Jim Lehrer on the PBS Newshour. Not every night, but when I’m home, and when I can, I check in on that. I feel a little bit guilty about News.me, because it was incubated at the Times. I look at it, but don’t look at it every day.

That just means we need to improve.

A lot of these young services are in that category. You need to tip it over. Like Twitter at the outset. Twitter is a network effects company — if there are no other people on the network, it’s going to be pretty useless. But the more people that join the network, the richer it gets. Maybe News.me has some of that as well.

Part of the problem is that there are just so many ways of experiencing information now. The barriers to creating services are pretty low. As a professional in this area, I use every service because I need to see every service, but that’s different from having something really turn me on. Flipboard is gorgeous. I mean, it’s one of the best and most interesting UIs that has been invented, to my eye, in the last ten years. And yet I still haven’t for whatever reason totally insinuated it into my life. And I don’t quite know why. It’s a gorgeous, accessible, wonderful service, but it just hasn’t tipped for me into a daily thing.

So what do you think it requires to make something tip?

At this point, for me, it has to be undeniably must-read. It has to be, “If I don’t have this, I’m at some serious disadvantage in my life.” Because the cacophony of sources has just become so great, you could just spend all day surfing around news websites and news apps and not get anything done. It just has to tip into something, as Steve Jobs coined the phrase, “insanely great.”

Is there something that has tipped for you recently?

Obviously, a lot of stuff outside news. Tumblr. Instagram. A bunch of other apps. But I have to be honest with you — no. Probably the last thing that flipped for me was Twitter. And that was a few years ago.

It’s hard. If you’re in the business of creating news and information, and I am, and I have been for many years — you get these kind of blinders, where you think everybody is into it. But the fact is, when you go out and you talk to people who are not in the business, they’re leading their lives and doing what they do, and for them everything is just totally optional. So it just has to be must-have in order for it to work.

Is there something in your consumption habits that you think is missing? Some tool?

No. The thing that’s so great about our business. Every time you think you’ve got it done, some new wonderful thing comes along that just tips for you. It always comes serendipitously. If I knew what that app was going to be, I’d probably try and go build it. But sometime in the next 2-5 years something will fill a need I didn’t even know I had.

Twitter is a great example of that. Who would have thought — I mean, I don’t think the guys that built Twitter thought this — that this thing that was limited to 140 characters would become such a central part of the news and information ecosystem?

What did you see as the potential for online news when you started at the Times? How does that related to what you see as the future of news now?

There were a lot of proprietary services before the web. One that people think of today as the most prominent was America Online. AOL was founded in 1983 and grew to be a very robust proprietary service. And then the web came along and disrupted it. Before the web disrupted traditional media, actually, it disrupted AOL, which is sort of ironic.

When I came to my original interview with Arthur Sulzberger, it was with a lot of bias about how information is managed online. You had these two poles, and I think they still exist. One is essentially the Internet as a pure distribution medium for news and entertainment created in a multi-platform context, including for print and television. A distribution medium, basically. A great example is watching TV through IP, or reading articles that are in the Times newspaper, except online. Think of that as one side of the spectrum. The total opposite side of the spectrum is web as platform. And that’s where all the engineers live. You don’t need many engineers to just port traditional content onto the web, but you do need engineers to build application value.The classic example is Google News. It is pretty much a pure application.

So that tension has existed in my mind from the moment we started the website. And I’ve always pushed really hard to broaden what the Times can be. Sometimes I’ve succeeded and sometimes I’ve failed, but I really think it’s important for traditional news sources to embrace the technology side of our business — and really understand what the application side can do for content. Not just publishing content from one source and porting it into a bunch of templates.

I think the Times was the first publication in my experience that actually used the application side. What do you think was your greatest success at the times, in developing this web platform?

In a funny irony, the thing that we did right — and it’s not me, believe me, I’m very humble when it comes to the New York Times because it’s a collective, collaborative creation every day, and the people who lead the business always need to be aware of that. But I think the thing we really got right — and we got it right pretty much at the outset — was taking the Times' essence, what the Times stands for as a brand, and making it easy to use and very accessible online.

Very few people are in the digerati, right? If you engineer products purely for those people, you will always fail. You need to understand that 99 percent of the people really don’t care about what you do. They care about how what you do affects their lives. Unless you touch them, in a very meaningful way, you will fail. If you focus on the technology, or focus on what will be cool about it to a very small group of people, it’s just not going to work.

I think we created something that people see as exciting and useful and, at the same time, an expression of what the heritage of this thing had been. That’s hard to do. It’s not so much about science — you can’t measure that — as it is about the art of it. That I think is what I am most proud of in terms of what this team accomplished.

One of the ways the Times managed to seamlessly transition the brand from print publication with so much weight and dignity to an online platform with still the same dignity was design.

That’s precisely what I meant when I said what our greatest achievement was. You just said it more succinctly! But the reason I didn’t use the D-word is because design is one aspect of that. And it’s a very, very important aspect. But there’s more to it. There’s UI, user experience, architecture. Design is certainly a major component of what you’re calling dignity and gravitas, but the way you move through the content is also very important. We were, in those early days, criticized for making the interactive design too basic. But in 1995 or 1996, pretty much everyone was using narrowband at home, so there were on very slow dialup connections, often through a service like AOL. And at work, the quick connections were obviously much faster, but still very limited. You had to engineer something that would work for the user in that environment. It had to be fairly bare bones.

The other thing that people criticized was our homepage design. We obviously built the homepage as a gif. It had a lot of design elements in it, and it was hand-tailored for a couple of years in a way that a lot of people thought was kind of retro. But it had the effect of bringing along a lot of people who were familiar with and understood the Times design language. So it wasn’t just about trying to recreate something, it was about — you used the word “dignity,” and I think that is the right word. If we had not done it that way, we would have never differentiated ourselves. Because the content is really important and it’s central, but the expression and the organization of that content is also important. Maybe not quite as important, but certainly important.

(Interview conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)

Getting the News — danah boyd

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and Megan Garberhere.)

Scheduling a half hour with danah boyd, Ph.D. is not easy. She’s a professional Internet researcher for Microsoft, Harvard, NYU, the University of New South Wales, and… Lady Gaga (seriously!). danah has a particular interest in the intersection of youth culture and technology, and has published extensively on social media in academic journals, her co-authored book, and at her blog. She discusses youth culture on the Internet with perspective and insight few adults can claim. danah is currently working on a new book, The Social Lives of Networked Teens, which will probably totally blow our minds as soon as we read it. We were lucky to get a few minutes to talk with her about journalism. Unsurprisingly, danah had enormous insight not just on what she needs to stay informed, but what young people need, too.

How do you get your news throughout the day?

The beginning of the day is all about what’s coming at me. I start off the day with my phone and email. In the middle of the night I’ll get the News.me Daily Digest, so I’ll look at that. I also get a lot of “crisis news” in my email — emails from people saying, “oh my god, you should know about this.” If I went to bed before 10 p.m., I also got Google News alerts in the middle of the night. Although more often than not I get them at the end of the day because of my inability to sleep at a reasonable hour. Twitter sometimes comes up early, but sometimes it doesn’t come up until much later because I can’t deal with it.

Midday, I have some downtime, so then I actually go to sites that I visit on a semi-regular basis. The New York Times is high up there. Global Voices is another I visit regularly. Boing Boing is one of the fun ones. I use the Tweeted Times to see what I’ve missed in my Twitter world — I don’t get to participate in Twitter very actively, so it’s a way to catch up with it later.

These are all things that generally make feel good, because they’re generally aligned with what I care about. Later in the day, if I have more downtime, I’ll start to consume things that are actually different. Anything that starts during the day, where I’m like, “I need to get a different perspective on this” — my first visit is to the Fox News website. I’ll hit Fox News, MSNBC, and sometimes I’ll hit CNN, just to see how the mainstream coverage is going.

Why do you go to Fox News first?

Because it’s most likely to be as different from my personal opinion as possible. Because I’m like: “What the fuck, America?” We’re not going to agree on anything, so I want to hear what that frame is.

I go to the New York Times because I respect them, because I appreciate them, because I value them. But at the same time, I want to know what the rest of the country is hearing. The New York Times is not what the majority is hearing.

In the same vein, I’ll poke around on Twitter, doing different searches, looking around specifically for things that are different from my point of view. I’ll also pop out Google News so I can see coverage from the different papers.

What do you think is missing from your news consumption?

In some ways, I want the inverse of News.me or Tweeted Times. Because the hardest thing for me is figuring out: What is everyone else talking about that I have no fucking clue about? The web tends to narrow your consumption more and more. And as a news junkie, that tends to piss me the hell off.

It’s about perspective. Look at anything in the political domain. I loathe Santorum. But I find it so fascinating to see how he’s framed in conservative news. The problem with reading the New York Times is that the Times is all about tempered and metered interpretations of what’s going on. Meanwhile, TV news is all about total extremism. It’s about facial expressions, and performance over content. Watching Fox, I can understand the appeal of Santorum. It doesn’t make me like him anymore, but I can at least get it.

My network is not talking positively about Santorum in any way. It’s not even talking positively about Romney. They’re both lunatics. But I know better than to think that’s how they’re actually being discussed beyond my network. I want a tool that gives me what’s outside of my perspective on these issues — because otherwise I have to do a lot of really difficult and exhausting work to find it.

What was the last great article you read?

At lunch this afternoon, the story on Jack White in the New York Times.

Was it good?

It was totally fascinating! And then I went and Wikipedia-ed 12 different things about Meg White. That’s fun news consumption.

I know that you study social media. I know that you study youth and social media. Are there ways news organizations can adapt to better serve young people?

General news is not relevant to young people because they don’t have context. It’s a lot of abstract storytelling and arguing among adults that makes no sense. So most young people end up consuming celebrity news. To top it off, news agencies, for obvious reasons, are trying to limit access to their content by making you pay for it. Well, guess what: Young people aren’t going out of their way to try to find this news, so you put up one little wall, and poof, done. They’re not even going to bother. That dynamic ends up really affecting those who already are ill-informed. I’m passionate about news. I pay attention to it obsessively. So of course I pay for it. But if you’re not passionate about news — if you don’t care about it — you’re not going to pay a cent for it.

When I hear news agencies talk about wanting to get young people, they don’t want to figure out how to actually inform them — they want to hear how to monetize them. And that pisses me off. My interest is in making sure they’re informed, but it’s often not through monetizable options.

With young people, the thing that gets them fastest and easiest is the thing that can spread the most easily. They access news through the ether. It’s pretty crazy — it’s not active consumption. I interviewed a whole group of kids 24 hours after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. I asked them — “How did you hear about the shootings?” The answers were all random. “My grandmother called me. She called me to talk about how dangerous colleges are.” “My parents saw it on the news and they asked me about it.” “‘Love and Support for Virginia Tech’ went through my Facebook because this one girl I met three years ago went to Virginia Tech.” It was very ambient.

In order for news to be more available and accessible to young people right now, it’s about making sure that its ambience is magnified. And particularly that the availability of quality material is magnified. Kony 2012, the viral video, was shared by a lot of kids.  But when I interviewed kids who’d seen it, they didn’t know it was about Uganda — Africa was kind of all one country; Joseph Kony was a bad person who was actively doing this terrible thing to kids; all of the Africans seem to accept it — when in fact he’s been on everyone’s hit list for years. Everybody in my world was talking about Kony 2012 by critiquing it, but these kids didn’t know that.

The Times is probably one of the better sources because they do such a great job of getting their links out there. Their paywall tends to cause other problems. But the fact that you can access them through social media helps. Likewise, unbelievable quantities of celebrity crap does a great job of making videos easily sharable. Quality news doesn’t tend to make video easily sharable. Colbert and Stewart, though? Phenomenal at this shit. They manage to get their stuff out there. I am enamored with both of them.

Last question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of news?

I’m definitely optimistic. I roll my eyes when journalists say, “oh my god, kids these days, they’re not into news, when I was that age, blah blah blah.” I’m like — you were a nerd! There have always been geeky youth who were always into news. But the vast majority of young people have never been into news. Maybe kids ended up getting ambient news through newspaper routes. But then again, because of how the internet is structured, maybe they’re getting ambient news in new ways.

There’s a long history of ebbs and flows on where news fits into open government and a corporate lifespan. I’m not convinced that most of the existing players will stick around in their current form. TV news should never have gone 24/7, and we’re stuck with it now — the result of which is that there’s a lot of fear-mongering and a lot of crazy, and people basically becoming celebrities so they can be plastic TV-anchor types. And advertising is a dreadful way of funding this stuff. There’s a lot of innovation that’s needed.

The Times, for example, is doing a tremendous job experimenting. Do I like all of their experiments? No. But I give them massive credit for trying, rather than demanding that everyone go back to the old way. Like using data to try to explain stories in more detail? That’s great. More multimedia? Phenomenal.

The public has access to information in unprecedented ways. Unfortunately, it has access to good information and access to shitty information. For me, the challenge is: How do you create media literacy? How do you get people to critically engage the news that’s available? These are issues we need to address, but the availability of information is still amazing. And I think that’s part of what’s so terrifying to people, that there’s so much information out there.

More information does not make a more informed population. We need to think about what it actually means to create a more informed society. We’re a long way away from that. But I don’t have some nostalgic lust for the past, because I don’t think we’ve ever been truly informed.

Find danah at her personal website, on Twitter, and at her blog.

(Interview conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)

News.me for iPhone: Now with more awesome!

It’s been just about a month since we launched News.me for iPhone. I’m pleased to share that we have been (happily) overwhelmed by the response!

People are finding all sorts of useful places and moments to dip into the best news from Twitter and Facebook. For many of our users, it’s the first thing they check when they wake up in the morning, and the last thing they read before going to bed. It’s reading material for the subway, the bus, or the line at the deli counter.

So what’s new in this version of News.me for iPhone?

Swipe to Read Later

One of the best features in News.me is the ability to save articles to the News.me Reading List. We make it easy to save any article you’re reading in the application or any article you find around the web into your News.me Reading List (learn more at News.me/tools).

We wanted to make it even easier to save articles to your Reading List, so today we’re introducing a sleek (and fun) new gesture to allow you to save articles directly from your main News stream.

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet, More Powerful Than a Locamotive

Rob “Tacos” Haining has been busy making the app zippy quick. You’ll notice some great speed improvements in the updated version of the app.

Stay tuned…(and tell me what you think)

We’re big fans of small and frequent releases, so expect us to keep up this pace of development. 

The changes in the next few updates are a direct result of feedback from our users (you!). So email me, call me, stop by betaworks for coffee. I want to hear what you think of the app (the good, the bad, the ugly).

Thanks!

Jake / jake.levine@news.me

Getting the News: 20 Weeks Later

This is our 20th post in the “Getting the News” series. For the past 20 weeks we’ve brought you perspectives on journalism from 18 incredible writers, thinkers, and innovators: entrepreneurs, journalists, designers, authors, and computer scientists. This week, we thought we’d take a look back. We started this series as an attempt to understand the changing media landscape around us. How are the most informed people on the web getting the news? How do the cutting-edge stay informed? Here’s what we learned.

On Television

Sometimes, our respondents disagreed. When we asked about television news, we got quite a range of responses, from Anil Dash:

I hate, hate, hate television news. Hate it. I stopped watching it entirely after 9/11 and hadn’t turned it back on for more than a year after that for any reason. Even now it makes me frustrated and angry and annoyed, even just in the short doses I get when I’m passing through an airport or whatever. I think it’s generally irresponsible and destructive to society.

To Alan Murray:

So, if you could see my office, where Ashley and I are sitting, I have [counting] one, two, three, four, five, screens, I’m sorry, six screens and three devices. I have two screens where I keep an eye on business news. I keep one of them on FOX Business News, and with the other I’ll sometimes watch CNBC and sometimes watch CNN, depending on what’s going on.

On RSS

Nobody, as far as we can tell, is 100 percent satisfied with their RSS Reader. Patricia Sauthoff was trying to get used to the Google Reader redesign. Zach Seward, epic news junkie, was daunted by the number of articles he’d face. And Jake Dobkin recounted his daily struggle with his RSS feed as if it were a battle he fought daily, part of the long war against the news: “wading into the cesspool” with “pure disgust and horror.”

On Social Discovery

Our sources are generally happier about Twitter. Alan Murray said he relied on it to fill in coverage gaps: “If it’s important enough, I can assume somebody has tweeted about it.” Gordon Crovitz added to that sentiment: “Often I find great articles thanks to Twitter: One of my rules is that if three of the people I follow link to the same article, then I always read the article, too. This is the new serendipity.”

Political reporters Zeke Miller and Evan McMorris-Santoro are on it all day when they’re on the campaign trail. McMorris-Santoro said, “Most of my news consumption these days is flipping through the phone over coffee in the morning and then checking Twitter while standing in the back of some library annex or barbecue restaurant. (Note to campaigns: book more barbecue restaurants.)” Zach Seward was a bit more ambivalent about his Twitter feed, constantly weeding out repeats and searching for perspectives outside of his feed. “Though I’m not always reading Twitter, I feel as though I’m hooked up to it intravenously,” he added. And Zeke brought up a fascinating point about coverage on Twitter: 

In my business, we need to be fast and quick and smart, too, and we tend to jump on things in 140 characters. What we try to do here at BuzzFeed, and what we wish people would do more — I know I could be better at it — is trying to take everything and put it in proper perspective. There’s no way to do that in 140 characters. Twitter can be a live wire of the Bloomberg and AP headlines, but it has trouble circling back and doing the more important part. Twitter does a good job when breaking news happens. Here’s what happened. Here’s what was said. But what truly makes something newsworthy is not what was said but what it means. It’s the icing on the cake that makes the news all that much better, all that more important.

Why is getting the news so hard?

As interesting as it is to hear tips and tricks from brilliant media-philes, one cold harsh reality became clear: there’s too much stuff.

Our interviewees are swamped by too much information and too little time. Hilary Mason put it succinctly:

If we take a step back, there’s this universe of data that’s happening around us, and some of it is really relevant to the things we need to know to do our jobs or the things we’re really interested in. The problem is then — out of that whole universe of data, how do you find the things you need to know at the time you need to know them in a way that is least intrusive into your life?

Some of our respondents wake up at the crack of dawn and are on their social networks in the early hours of the morning. Others start later but are obsessively combing news sites throughout the day. Some — a sleep-deprived, elite echelon — do both. The morning, as Zach Seward eloquently wrote, was about frantically trying to figure out whatever he’d missed overnight. Ken Fisher's morning routine is blearily accompanied by the news:

When I first wake-up, the most important news is in my inbox, accessible to me by whatever phone I am using at the moment. I’ve checked it within five minutes of getting up, probably while I am brushing my teeth. What’s there? From there, I usually load up AP and scan headlines. I’m still pretty groggy at this point, and I may walk right into a wall while trying to turn a corner reading the AP.  At this point in my day, I’m looking for day-altering news. I don’t read much at this hour, I just mostly note its existence.

When we asked them for tools that might make their lives easier, the most common response was something along the lines of “more time.” Jake Dobkin asked for a sophisticated AI that would do all his reportage for him. Zach took a different tack, and asked for “news blow.” Another common wish was for something that could sift through the many sources facing them better, not just faster. Jake aggressively monitors his social media networks so he can get better information more quickly:

I’m always deleting people. I’ve deleted the Dalai Lama. I’ve deleted my best friend. As soon as somebody gets noisy, or starts talking a lot about what they’re eating, it’s like dude, I just unfollowed you. And then I’ll IM them, and I’ll be like, “Dude, I just unfollowed you!” And they’ll be like “Dude, that’s so hurtful, man!” and I’m like, “Dude, live with it. Tell me when you’re ready to stop polluting my channel.”

Evan Williams, meanwhile, felt that “non-new content” was too hard to discover:

The web is completely oriented around new-thing-on-top. Our brains are also wired to get a rush from novelty. But most ‘news’ we read really doesn’t matter. And a much smaller percentage of the information I actually care about or would find useful was produced in the last few hours than my reading patterns reflect.

And Chris Dixon said:

I find that more and more of the best content is from people speaking from direct experience. I think there’s probably always a need for professional news, investigative reporting, like the Foxconn story we were talking about earlier. Maybe you could have on-the-ground reports about that, but probably you need paid journalists for that, and there’s a role for that. But the idea that the New York Times needs to tell you about the latest finance and venture capital news is silly. I’m interested in the potential and untapped talent out there, and the changing role of paid journalists.

I think the more interesting questions for news are around content than around delivery mechanisms. I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress with delivery mechanisms, but with content we’re going to see some interesting shakeups in the next five years.

Where that leaves us…

We’re not going to stop doing these interviews, though they may become less frequent as we start focusing on other things. We’ve learned a tremendous amount from this incredible group of people, and applying these learnings every day to the products we’re building.

We’re refining News.me for Email so you only have to open one thing to find out what you need to know for the day. We launched News.me for iPhone to deliver the must-read news from Twitter and Facebook when you’re out and about. 

Now that we’ve reached out to who we know, we want to ask you — who else should we ask about their news habits? Who else has a media diet you just have to know more about? And while we’re asking questions — what do you think about our findings? Do they match up with your experience? Tell us @newsdotme or at email me at sonia@news.me.

Maybe our favorite takeaway from the many awesome interviews we did was this one line from Chris Dixon:

The way I see it, If I can spend 20 minutes in the morning and have a 90 percent chance of knowing anything important that someone might mention that day, I’m informed. A person mentioning news that I didn’t know about, that is relevant to me, is a failure in my newsreading methods.

That nailed it for Team News.me, because for us, that’s a problem statement we can get behind. 

Sonia, Jake, and the News.me team

Why are 37% of all articles Awesome?

It’s been an insane three and a half weeks since we launched News.me for iPhone. One of the features that we are most excited about is News.me Reactions.

Here’s how we described it:

News.me Reactions: the right type of sharing.

We wanted to find a form of expression that was at once more meaningful than a generic “Like,” but less work than a free-text comment. We also had a peculiar design challenge: how do we build News.me for iPhone as a mobile-friendly, one-handed application?

With News.me Reactions, we’ve done just that. Find an article hilarious or surprising? Tap “Ha!” and share it with your followers on News.me. Stumble across a beautiful picture or inspiring story? Tap “Wow” and your followers on News.me will know about it. When you follow people on News.me, you’ll see their Reactions in your Reactions stream, and the articles they react to in your main News stream.

Our thinking was that one of the barriers to participation in a conversation on the phone is the keyboard, so we wanted to reduce that barrier by making participation as simple as a tap of the thumb.

The challenge is that everyone has their own unique voice, and so limiting expression to a set of five words could also raise the barrier to participation. So our solution was to provide a set of words that were as ambiguous and open to interpretation as possible. 

We had some guesses about how people would use News.me Reactions, but as is the case with most startups, we had no f*cking clue. We’re a bit geeky about tracking usage data at News.me, so of course we tracked how people were using Reactions. Here’s what we learned:

Users can either type in their own custom Reaction, or use one of our “preset” Reactions. 62% of the time users opted for one of our one-tap preset Reactions.

Of those who selected to use one of our five preset Reactions, here’s the Reaction they chose:

"Awesome" wins with 37%, followed by "Wow" in a distant second at 23%. Sadly, 
"Sad" takes last place with a mere 10% of all Reactions posted. 

The next question is: why…?

Are people more likely to share “Awesome” articles? Or are they just more likely to describe what they share as “Awesome”? Why don’t people share “Sad” articles? Or are they just less likely to use “Sad” to describe articles that they share?

Remember that News.me looks at the links shared by your friends on Twitter and Facebook, so you can’t React to any article that doesn’t come from one of those two sources. Is it possible that few “Sad” articles appear on Twitter and Facebook, and so there are just fewer “Sad” articles to React to on News.me in the first place?

At the core of this line of questioning is a single quandary: why do people share?

Instead of waxing philosophical on our blog, we thought we’d open it up to our users: why do YOU share?

Answer in the comments below or send us a tweet @newsdotme, and we’ll aggregate the ideas into a follow-up post.

Looking forward to your thoughts!

Jake

Getting the News — Jake Dobkin

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and Megan Garberhere.)

This week we sat down with Jake Dobkin, publisher of Gothamist, native New Yorker, and to date the only person to come in for an interview with typed up discussion notes. Gothamist is one of New York City’s go-to websites for city news, information, and generally speaking, what’s cool. But is it hyper-local? “I’m doing hyper-space-local news,” Jake explained to me. “Is it hyper local? I don’t know. But we’re hyper-excited about it!” Metro reporters are an old film noir standby — their dramatic stories and hectic schedules always makes for excellent cinema. Jake is the 21st century’s response to metro reporting.

Gothamist started in New York, but has since spread to a dozen other cities, rapidly populating the digital urban news space in a way that’s somehow cool, approachable, and newsworthy. Covering New York City is not an easy task. There are a thousand things happening at every moment in America’s biggest city. Gothamist has to be a nimble news force — finding news quickly, responding efficiently, and giving everything that razor’s edge of taste that makes it worth coming back to. But reading the news when you’re covering New York is its own adventure. Jake brings not just a rigorous work ethic to his news consumption, but also a philosophy refreshing to see in media. In spare time (which cannot be a lot), Jake takes landscape photographs at BlueJake.com and documents the graffiti scene at Streetsy.com and GrafRank.com. Oh yeah. Jake is a graffiti enthusiast. We told you he was a new kind of metro reporter.

What is Gothamist trying to do?

We’re trying to be the best independent source for news, arts, events, and food in each of our cities. Our parents had independent alt-weeklies, and a lot of those companies have gone out of business because they went out of print. I see ourselves the next generation to that kind of independent media. We want to be a trusted tell-it-like-it-is voice in each city. We don’t need to be comprehensive. My goal is not to be the New York Times Metro Section. It’s to tell you like what’s really interesting, most interesting, in each of these cities, each day. We are both meme-spotters and original news producers. On a good day, we’re do both of those functions really well. We are the best meta source for New York, because we probably read 2,000 sources for the city — no normal person would have that interest — and from that we’re pulling the best stories.

I really believe that aggregation, when done right, is a real skill. Pulling out the most important facts from the story, knitting them together, adding some original reportage on top — we do that. And then like any newspaper or magazine, we source our own stories. Our interest is probably a little different than most magazines. More interested in youth-friendly stories, things younger people are interested in. Some of the issues we cover — like a biker gets hit by a car — the New York Times would never cover that. But that’s a story for us — especially if they got hit in Williamsburg, or something.

So what’s your morning news routine?

I work half the day on the editorial side, and half on the publishing side, in business and management. But the mornings are editorial. So I wake up early, around 6:30am or 7am, and for about two hours, I work pretty consistently, trying to spot where the most interesting stories are in New York. My guiding principles are two things: First, like everyone, I want a high signal-to-noise ratio. I already have to sort this enormous sea of stories each morning to find the interesting stuff. I don’t want noisy sources that make that job even harder.

The second thing is a little more spiritual. The Buddhists have this expression: Don’t eat poison. As it applies to media, there are certain kinds of media that are bad for you, spiritually. Things that promote materialism, celebrity, the pain and suffering of others. Gothamist sites have a pretty positive voice. “Yay! We’re excited about being here. We want you to be excited about being here.” We’re not trying to revel in negativity, because I think that’s corrosive, spiritually. And I’ve done this now for eight or nine years, so I want to be a happy person. It would really hard to spend that much time doing something that covered celebrity stupidity or “buy this, buy that,” because those are not values that lead to happiness. I try to find sources that are both high-quality in terms of signal-to-noise but also high-quality in terms of promoting values that I believe in. So a lot of the sources I read are more heavily fact-based, or high-quality, longer-form journalism. I really try to avoid stuff that focuses on Hollywood.

I start with email. I get a lot of email, because I’m copied on the tips@gothamist.com emails in New York. People just emailing us telling us what’s going on. I’ll also have a ton of PR pitches that I ignore, and I get alerts from two wire monitoring services here in New York. They monitor police, fire, and government radio frequencies, and they send us alerts when anything’s going on, so it goes to my inbox overnight. We also get emails from the FBI, from most of the government agencies, and stuff. we just started getting emails from the police department last week. It took us eight years to finally fight them to put us on their PR list. We had to get press passes, which I now carry with me, just in case I walk into a story.

In a good day, I can get through email in about 20-30 minutes. By then, any really viral stories I might already be on to, because someone sent it to tips. But then I go through my “Core Sources” — that’s actually what I call that folder — which is Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, and a service called Stellar, which Jason Kottke started. It tracks people’s favorites. In each of those services, I have a signal-to-noise rule. I generally don’t follow more than 75-100 people at any one time. I’m always deleting people. I’ve deleted the Dalai Lama. I’ve deleted my best friend. As soon as somebody gets noisy, or starts talking a lot about what they’re eating, it’s like dude, I just unfollowed you. And then I’ll IM them, and I’ll be like, “Dude, I just unfollowed you!” And they’ll be like “Dude, that’s so hurtful, man!” and I’m like, “Dude, live with it. Tell me when you’re ready to stop polluting my channel.”

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Getting the News — Zeke Miller

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and Megan Garberhere.)

BuzzFeed has been making waves lately. The LOL-based startup recently launched an Election 2012 section and has been distinguishing itself with coverage that straddles the meme-hilarity of the Internet with the hard-nosed political coverage of old media. Political reporter Zeke Miller is one of their reporters on the front lines, following the candidates’ campaigns across the country. Zeke gave us the perspective of a reporter on the road deeply immersed in political dialogue. He told us what tools he needs and what content the political dialogue is missing. And he follows 2,500 people and sleeps four hours a night, making your life look pretty easy right now.

Describe how you get your news throughout the day.

The first thing I do when I wake up is scan my inbox to see if there’s any news from the night before. Usually it’s 30 or 40 emails that I pick through on my laptop or my phone. And then after that it’s Twitter — and Twitter and Twitter all throughout the day. That’s what’s there collecting the news for me and staying on top of things I need to know.

At 5:30 a.m., the volume is kind of low. Twitter is actually really nice at 5:30am. It’s quiet, it’s slow. In Tweetdeck, I can go back an hour, whereas at 1pm I can only go back five minutes, because the volume is just so high now. It’s a nice way to find out what happened overnight. There are only so many people up at 4am. So I can read all that. And then the day starts.

The political news cycle starts really early in the morning.

And it’s increasingly earlier. I haven’t been at this all that long, but everyone gets up really early. The first thing I read in the morning is POLITCO's Morning Money, run by a great guy named Ben White, and yeah, that goes out at 5:30 a.m. 

What do you like about that email?

Well, it’s early. And there’s a lot of personality. It really is the type of thing written by an insider for an insider. It’s used by financial lobbyists and other people in the financial industry. I use it to cover politics, of course. Because it’s so important to get this information first thing in the morning, Tim stays up all night writing it so he can cover these things before anybody else is up.

Really?

Yeah, I think he has some weird schedule where he sleeps between like 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., something intense I don’t understand.

What are some Twitter resources you trust?

I follow 2,500 people — journalists, politicians, news outlets, whatever. When you follow that many people on Twitter, you catch just about everything. If you name a major news outlet, I probably follow them, and if I don’t, it’s an oversight. Even if I do miss something, it’ll probably bubble up in my feed. 

What devices do you use?

I have two iPhones and a laptop, and that’s basically it. And I’ll pick up a paper pretty often. I do enjoy reading newsprint, a lot. It’s a totally different reading experience that I don’t typically have the time to do. I do miss the speed and the accessibility of reading online, but there’s nothing quite like picking up a magazine or newspaper.

Do you read the paper every day?

I do read the New York Times every day. The question is not if I read it, it’s how far I get. Some days, it’s the B section, some days, it’s more. But I do try to read the A section every day.

My guilty pleasure is of course the New York Post. Every New Yorker might deny that they read it, but everybody does, every day. It’s hard to resist. Outlandish as it is, it’s just so much fun to read.

How does your news consumption parlay into your news coverage? Have you changed your habits to better cover the GOP race?

I wouldn’t say my news consumption has changed very much, I just get more of it. The biggest challenge is that now everybody’s focused on the primary. Google alerts come in more frequently, emails from everybody in the world come in more frequently. The challenge is really how to sift what’s important from what’s not. I have to work harder to pick out what’s important from what is really a lot of noise.

There is a lot of political chatter on Twitter.

It doesn’t bother me on Twitter as much, because the good stuff gets retweeted a lot. It’s a way to judge what other people find worth reading. If everybody starts talking about it, and my goal is to be the first person to tweet something to my followers, then that is a signal that helps me separate the wheat from the chaff.

Is there anything you wish you had?

I’ll give you a two-pronged answer. First, on the technical side, there needs to be a better way to distill Twitter. There needs to be a roundup email early in the morning that says, “This is what people talked about last night.” It would save me a lot of time.

What’s missing from news in general, though, is perspective. In my business, we need to be fast and quick and smart, too, and we tend to jump on things in 140 characters. What we try to do here at BuzzFeed, and what we wish people would do more — I know I could be better at it — is trying to take everything and put it in proper perspective. There’s no way to do that in 140 characters. Twitter can be a live wire of the Bloomberg and AP headlines, but it has trouble circling back and doing the more important part.

Twitter does a good job when breaking news happens. Here’s what happened. Here’s what was said. But what truly makes something newsworthy is not what was said but what it means. It’s the icing on the cake that makes the news all that much better, all that more important.

Often, it’s not the first tweet. It’s the second tweet or the third tweet, from the original reporter from the source, for that perspective on why what this politican said matters, or is troubling, or is great, or is something they will regret saying later, or is something they are regretting now. Often the second or third tweet gets lost in the conversation, and those tweets are what needs to be on top.

How much have you slept since the primaries started?

The travel on the road just cuts it in half. So about four hours a night.

Does a lot of political news happen overnight that I don’t know about?

Sometimes yes. 5 or 6 a.m. is the embargo break. Sometimes there’s a leak earlier. Sometimes there will be full emails out. You get a ton of emails between midnight and 6am – whether it’s the DNC and the RNC worked late, or campaigns putting stuff out. Our job is to both be a night owl and be an early riser.

So be superhuman.

To basically never sleep, yeah. They’re working on a different schedule than you are. And what we do is in some ways reactive — we need information before we can write a story. Or we need their reaction to something someone else has written. A writer can publish a great piece that posts at 4 a.m. — whenever the CMS updates — and you’re like, “Okay, this is news now.”

It never sleeps. You just have to get through.

Find Zeke on Twitter and at BuzzFeed.

(All interviews conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)

Ah, Push It. The Push Music Behind 19 Startups.

Lately we’ve found ourselves pushing a lot of code here at News.me, which of course, means we’ve been listening to a lot of push music. For those “normals” reading this blog post (how did you find us and what do you want???), push music is a song or video played at the moment when new code is pushed to production. It’s a moment of celebration that is usually accompanied by someone saying: Fuck it. Ship it.

Push music is one of those things that all internet startups have in common (also on that list is beer, coffee, and challenges finding engineers). So we thought it would be fun to reach out to some friends and find out how they push code. 

News.me’s push music of choice, which we share with Venmo, is a little out of the ordinary. Scroll down to the bottom to find out!

Here’s what they had to say:

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Introducing Your Social Editor-In-Chief: News.me Exposé

Front page editors at major publishers like the New York Times and the New Yorker are masters at laying out content on their homepages, and the recommendations implicit in that layout are incredibly valuable. But more and more, we’re learning that recommendations from our friends can be just as useful.

So one afternoon* we decided to see what these homepages would look like if our friends were in charge…

Here’s how it works: Visit any website, click News.me Exposé in your browser’s bookmarks bar, and we’ll help you find the articles from that website that your friends think you should read. Visit our new Tools page to install it.

Here are a few of our favorite places to try it:

http://www.nytimes.com
http://www.newyorker.com
http://www.youtube.com
http://www.theatlantic.com
http://www.buzzfeed.com
http://instagr.am/

Ok, ‘nuff talk. Go get it, try it out, and let us know what you think in the comments!

Jake, Mike, Rob, Justin, Jon, and Josh

*News.me Exposé was born in an afternoon hackathon at betaworks, courtesy of beer. If you like making things and want to join our team, get in touch!

Getting the News — Hilary Mason

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and Megan Garberhere.)

This week we sat down with Hilary Mason, chief scientist at our sister company bitly. Most people know bitly as a link-shortening service, but behind the scenes, bitly has a huge amount of data to work with. Hilary’s job is to play with that data — and we’re always astounded with what she comes up with. A few months ago, when we were writing our post "Watching News Break," we sent a quick email poll to everyone in the betaworks offices: How did you find out Moammar Qaddafi had been killed? We got back a variety of responses, ranging from the Today Show to “this email,” but Hilary’s quick response was the most surprising. “I actually found out because ‘killed’ and ‘Gaddafi’ were trending through bitly data in our new trends API.” We might work in the same offices, but we did not know what they were up to next door — so we cornered Hilary for a few minutes to talk more about how she gets her news. It’s a different perspective from almost anyone else we’ve talked to — a highly technical and personalized way of sifting through news data. What else did we expect from a data scientist? In addition to working with huge amounts of data, Hilary is a co-founder of HackNY, one of Fortune's 40 under 40, and a cookie enthusiast.

How do you get your news in the morning?

I have a group of friends who often email around links, and so that’s where I look first. Those links tend to be either breaking news or mostly silly but interesting nerdy stuff on the Internet. After that I’ll usually go to Twitter and page back through to see what’s going on. I have some tools I’ve written on my GitHub page for going through Twitter. Really simple things, like, “Show me any link that’s been tweeted by more than two people I follow in the last 24 hours.” It’s configurable, so I can tag things by category. I’m able to go through all the tweets really quickly, filter out the sports tweets, because I don’t care about that, filter out the celebrity gossip, and then elevate the things that matter most.

How does your hack categorize the tweets?

There’s a trained classifier based on label data that I’ve given it over time. Some of it are pretty standard categories like “sports” or “technology.” I also have a “narcissism” category. It finds things like people saying the words “I,” “my,” or “mine” in the same tweet for people constantly promoting their own blog posts.

That’s brilliant, actually.

It’s more of a hack for dealing with the noise and the full stream of data. And then I do get a couple of emails, like the News.me email, that I really like for finding big things I might have missed.

I also have a script that reads the feed of birthdays off my Facebook feed and automatically writes the birthday emails for me, which is just a hack. I feel like leaving the “happy birthday” comment leaves you partial credit, but when you write the email, you get full credit. But I can still automate it off the same data source.

Your group of friends’ system is really intriguing. We know people mostly share news via email, but sharing breaking news is an interesting phenomenon. What does that typically look like?

It’s usually a link with a “Wow, have you seen this?” or “Are you following this story that happened?” One of the things we look at through bitly is how an idea can jump from a comment, to a blog post, to a blog, to a mainstream news source. It’s fun to see when people gather the pieces together on their own. It might be — “Did you see that this GitHub project has had a new push that allows you to do….” whatever. And then someone else will say, “Oh yeah, there’s an article about it over here.”

What were you looking at on the day of the Qaddafi assassination? 

It’s not currently demo-able, which is a shame, but one of the systems we’re working on is something designed to tell us what the world is paying attention to at any given moment — and not at the link level, but at the idea level, where we consider ideas to be collections of phrases. We’re measuring the click-rate on any given phrase, so we can tell you that “Jennifer Lopez,” for example, gets a typical 0.01 clicks/second click-rate, but when there was a potential dress malfunction at the Oscars, that went up to over 20 clicks/second. By watching this you’re able to see whenever something happens that gets enough attention from people that they’re actually clicking links about it. With Qaddafi, what I saw was what we call a “burst” in attention to that phrase.

Then what, do you Google the phrase?

Then I can go back and see through bitly which URLs are leading to that burst. The difference is that bitly is what people are paying attention to, and Google is the whole Internet. If you Google a restaurant’s name in New York, you’d find that restaurant’s homepage. If that restaurant happens to be on fire, with Google you’d still see that restaurant’s homepage, but through our data you’d see all the people saying “Oh god, this place is on fire!” 

Who on Twitter do you find particularly valuable or interesting?

I follow a lot of people in the data and machine-learning community, which is something I’m pretty involved and interested in. I want to know all the interesting things that happen in that community, whether it’s a new code release or somebody getting a new job. I follow that very deeply, and then I follow people who tend to retweet things that show up on PandoDaily, Mashable, or ReadWriteWeb — but I don’t really care to know everything in that sphere, I just want to know when big things happen.

I also follow NewYorkology, which is a great account if you live in New York. The woman who runs it is always tweeting beautiful photos of New York City, events that are happening, museum exhibits that are opening, subway service changes. I also follow museums that I like, like the American Museum of Natural History (@amnh). And I follow @WNYC for local news.

Do you ever watch local television news?

Well, I don’t have a TV. I do have an xBox… but that doesn’t count.

What platforms do you use to get your news content?

Mostly my iPhone and my laptop. I have a Kindle, but I use that for reading books. 

I still use Google Reader a lot. But it depends on whether I’m waking up and catching up on the news, or whether I’ve been programming for an hour and I need to take a break. The RSS reader tends to come into the latter piece, where I’m sitting at a computer and I don’t want to look at code or email for a while. I just want my brain to be distracted. So there I follow the same mix of academic data blogs and tech blogs as well as random things that are entertaining or interesting, like Boing Boing.

There are no news sites that I feel like I have to check in on their homepage. I tend to use CNN as my default domain when I’m trying to get on free WiFi — because it’s short to type, and it’s not an https domain, so it’ll get me through the authentication process quickly. Every so often I’ll find something interesting there, but that’s mostly an accident.

What was the last great article you read?

Last night I read a fascinating story on NPR’s site. It was about this near-extinct species of insect. I don’t have to tell you the whole story. Okay, I’ll tell you the whole story. They call them tree lobsters, and they’re huge, and they have hideous legs. They used to live on this tiny island off of Australia that houses maybe a couple hundred people. A hundred years a boat shipwrecked on the island and a bunch of rats came off the boat and ate all these insects. So they were thought to be extinct. But researchers just discovered some living on a huge rock about a mile away, under one bush. The 24 remaining tree lobsters in the world.

They managed to take a few away from that and breed them in a zoo, and now there are hundreds of these things, so they’re contemplating — do they keep them all in captivity, or do they go to this little island, kill off all the rats, and try reintroduce these bugs? They’re doing a public service campaign to convince people these bugs are more desirable than rats. So they made a video of one of them hatching out of an egg that is supposed to be cute but is horrible. It’s not the kind of thing you want to read right before you go to sleep. Which is probably why it made quite an impression on me.

It’s not breaking news, really, but I really like this type of story because it teaches you something remarkable about the world.

You’ve built your own tools to manage your news consumption. Are there any other tools you wish you had?

There are two reasons to read the news. One is so you’re not missing out on something you need to know to be successful in the society in which you interact. And there’s another one, which finds these delightful, intriguing stories about the world. For the former, applications like News.me are great examples of things that are sort of inching towards that superpower of ambient awareness of what’s happening in the world, without having to invest too much energy in searching it out every day. But I don’t think the problem’s solved yet.

If  we take a step back, there’s this universe of data that’s happening around us, and some of it is really relevant to the things we need to know to do our jobs or the things we’re really interested in. The problem is then — out of that whole universe of data, how do you find the things you need to know at the time you need to know them in a way that is least intrusive into your life?

How are we doing?

(laughs) We’re getting there.

Find Hilary at her website, on Twitter, at GitHub, and at Dataist.

(All interviews conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)