News.me

Getting the News — David Shen

(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 Anil Dash, Khoi Vinh, and Megan Garber, here.)

This week we’re very happy to feature David Shen. Dave is the West Coast Director for Launch Capital, former vice president of user experience and design at Yahoo!, amateur triathlete, and incredibly dedicated advisor to News.me. With a dual background in both programming and design, Dave is bursting with ideas for how to improve the news experience. We find him an invaluable resource, and we thought you might be interested to hear some of his many ideas.

1. Describe how you get news throughout the day. What’s the first thing you check when you wake up?

When I wake up in the morning, I might grab my iPhone next to my bed first and scroll through my email, looking at the various news emails I subscribe to. Then I open up Twitter and scroll through a few screens to see if there is anything interesting. If I get to my Mac, then it’s all about reading news via email, on my Netvibes page, and on twitter.

Netvibes is a web-based RSS reader, the next generation of evolution from My Yahoo! who popularized the user interface for reading content via placing that content into modules on a single page. Netvibes and other RSS readers are aggregated news readers that predate the stream view of content which came with the advent of Twitter. Still, I like the format provided by Netvibes because it allows me to scan a page full of headlines very quickly. Each one of those modules is news grouped by source, so if I want to focus on news by sources I can do that easily here.

Twitter is different; it has no organization, except for sorting in time and is presented serially only. But its user interface is great for real time news. The news is presented one after another as soon as it is placed in the stream.

I also read a lot of paper. I won’t buy newspapers (too big, too thick to carry, my fingers get dirty from holding the newsprint), but I still subscribe to magazines. I still have this conflict between paper and screen for reading. I’ve tried to read WIRED and Popular Science on the iPad but can’t do it for some reason; the paper versions are still superior to me. But I love my Kindle app on iPad and read almost all of my books on it.

There is one use case where I need paper magazines, and that is when I fly. That annoying little bit of time during takeoff and landing when we’re supposed to turn everything off is when I get through a stack of magazines. If only the airlines would allow us to use our e-readers during this time – it could remove my need for paper magazines greatly.

2. What publications or news sources do you read and trust? How frequently do you visit them throughout the day?

I subscribe to emails from the New York Times, Stocktwits, the Washington Post, and John Mauldin's weekly newsletter. I almost never visit the top pages of these sites; the typical home page of a news site is typically an online copy of its offline equivalent. Offline, we seemed to have gotten used to scanning an entire page of newsprint. Online, it is too cluttered for screen use because a computer screen is too constrained for scanning all that content.

Lifestyle and other content come in other emails, like Lomography, Griff Hamlin Blues Guitar Unleashed, Trendwatching.com, and Brain Pickings Weekly, As a central place to collect all sorts of content for later perusal, email works amazingly well for me.

More likely, I will pick up paper versions of: The Economist, Time, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, WIRED, Runner’s World, Bicycling, Triathlete, and Inside Triathlon.

The numerous other sources available online of blogs, brands, and sites are too many to name – I visit these randomly as they are presented to me, mostly through Twitter.

This begs the question: what exactly constitutes news? With the advent of the Internet, blogging and citizen journalism have become mainstream. There is a massive explosion of content but it is chaotic and ungoverned. Does someone’s online diary constitute news? A snippet of a person’s day on Twitter or Facebook feed? An opinion piece on a presidential candidate by an individual? The way it is presented, it seems that everything is now categorized as “news” in everyone’s minds. This is both an amazing happenstance and an opportunity for great danger. More information than ever possible is now available on any topic one can imagine; however, there is an unsolved problem where we instinctively think that whatever is printed is truth. Thus, we can always find content to support our position on an issue, but we have little means to know whether it is true, an opinion, or a blatant falsehood.

3. What platforms do you read/get content on? Are you into reading content on your iPhone or tablet, or do you still remember how to unfold a newspaper? Do you ever watch television news programs?

For me, it is slowly moving towards digital simply because of portability and the ability to do advanced things like reading later or saving snippets.

Bringing up an issue I mentioned earlier, there are still advantages of paper over those of screens. I must admit to liking the feel of paper. I save articles for reading later by ripping pages out and then I scan them in via my Fujitsu ScanSnap (an indispensible office device by the way). But paper isn’t very eco-green, and it takes up so much space and weight.

So far, the Kindle’s black and white e-ink screen is superior to that of the iPad color screen on eye strain and contrast. I’ve dialed down the brightness of my iPad’s screen to help ease the strain. But the iPad is great because I can read in the dark. Still, holding an iPad is pretty tough for a long period of time; it’s just a bit too heavy for that. Sometimes I long for a low-end Kindle but then I would have to lug around yet another device.

But still, the interface for digital versions of magazines isn’t good enough. We need more research into what a digital magazine (or book for that matter) should be. I do not think that having nifty swiping and embedded videos or animation is good enough. A lot of what is there is too distracting or interrupts the flow of original content.

As for TV news, I never watch it except when I’m on the treadmill working out. When I’m focused on running, I can’t really do anything else but watch video on a screen in front of me. The occasions when I can just receive passive feeding of news doesn’t happen very often now. It is much more efficient for me to scan things via text then it is to listen to someone deliver the news.

That’s not to say that certain types of content or stories aren’t better delivered via video. I just don’t have time to sit and watch an hour of news video, especially when I can get the same news in 5-10 minutes of scanning/reading news text.

4. What was the last great article you read? How did you find out about it? Is this your typical pattern?

I read a great post today by Cory Doctorow titled “A Vocabulary for Speaking about the Future.” It’s about how science fiction writers are terrible predictors of the future, but are still great at “inspiring, inoculating, reflecting, and exposing.” This one came through a tweet by Brad Feld of Techstars fame. Since I use Twitter as a major driver of news, this came through my typical pattern of news consumption.

Twitter is great for serendipity. But not all news is about serendipity; in my job, for example, I go looking for news about startups and venture capital. In my personal finances, I am interested in the economy and what the experts think about where the world is going. I train for triathlons and am interested in the latest thinking in training and sport.

Filtering in this way is important to wade through the chaos of everyday news; there is so much going on in the world and the internet has only exploded the availability of news. We desperately need products and services that help us figure out what to read when we want to read it and present it in an easily digestible form.

5. Is anything missing from your news consumption pattern now or in the tools/sites that you use? Anything you wish you had?

I posted a rant on my blog about how news hasn’t been innovated much at all, or at least in the deeper, more important, aspects.

Back when I was at Yahoo!, one of the first things we did was to bring news online. I think we launched Yahoo! News back in late 1995 and it was just a page of links, which opened up into text only story pages. This quickly expanded into multiple categories of news, and then into a whole bunch of new data sets like sports scores and stock quotes.

It was pretty innovative back then — but hasn’t changed much since. In fact, all every major news outlet has done is put their content online. Then they added a few other enhancements, like emailing stories, commenting, Facebook likes — is that innovation or just following the crowd?

I have serendipitous and directed news reading habits. I want to remember what I have read and be able to look up something I read, far into the past if need be. I want to clip quotes, share them, and discuss them with friends and strangers. I want to find out about breaking news as fast as it happens. I want to know what is truth and what is not, and what is just an opinion. And I want to be able to find out the latest news about any topic I’m interested in, at any time. I’m convinced the Internet has set the platform for this all to happen; I’m just waiting now for someone to make it real.

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