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Getting the News — Zach Seward

(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 reached out to Zach Seward, editor of outreach and social media for the Wall Street Journal. In addition to his writing and editing at the Journal, Zach teaches a class on digital media at NYU. He’s working at the intersection of social media and news every day. Zach warned us that his responses to the questions would be “a little obsessive” — this is one of our longest interviews, featuring Zach’s observations on his own rapacious appetite for news and the digital media landscape. But it’s so good that we wanted to publish all of it. This might be the first and last time we publish the phrase “news blow,” but we could hardly pass up on the opportunity.

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

My alarm clock sounds like one of those bright-red bells that might ring in a firehouse to signal an emergency, aptly setting the tone of my morning, which is a bleary scramble to answer: What did I miss?

Lurching out of bed and casting aside the iPad I fell asleep reading, I grab my phone to see what has piled up in my inboxes — work email first, then personal. I’m lucky to be part of a global news organization, so if something has exploded overnight in Kabul, if Asian markets are tanking, if protestors have been evicted from Zuccotti Park, that news will be waiting for me, often as raw dispatches from our staff overseas. My first notice of last year’s earthquake in Japan, for instance, was an inbox full of increasingly alarming emails.

I suppose this kind of news consumption is driven by an unhealthy fear, as though going to sleep were a risk rather than reward. And there’s often little to distinguish a can’t-miss story from a quarterly earnings report: that red LED blinks at the same pace no matter what news has just arrived. Ping. Ping. Ping.

Still, on a good day, email is my best informant. Friends send over links, sources chime in with tips, and strangers reach out to say something unexpected. My inboxes are messy streams not unlike the Twitter timeline or Facebook newsfeed — except that every message is addressed to me.

I also subscribe to scores of newsletters and other automated emails, most of which I delete without reading, which is a cathartic morning ritual. There are only two such emails that I open without exception:

  • News.me's digest of what my friends are reading and sharing, which is also on the Web. Many services compete in this space, and I’ve tried them all, but News.me is the only one that reliably surfaces links I want to click on. (I’m not just flattering you; it’s true!)
  • Timehop's diary of my Foursquare check-ins and tweets from a year ago. Sure, that's not really news so much as nostalgia, but I see it as an improvement on that old newspaper fixture, “This Day in History.”

Before setting my phone back down on my dresser, I also check topheadlin.es, which is a mobile web app that my colleague Jeremy Singer-Vine built. It scans dozens of news sites for the single most-prominent headline on each and displays them in a clean list. If a big story has broken overnight, I will get a quick view of how everyone is playing it. On a lighter morning, topheadlin.es is an efficient glance at the news judgment of news organizations from Al Jazeera to ESPN.

Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson gave an awesome talk last year on designing news for “media moments.” Waiting in line at the supermarket, commuting to work, and seeking a diversion to avoid an awkward conversation in the elevator are all media moments into which news might fit. And I think right-when-you-wake-up may be the ultimate media moment, combining urgency, routine, and a voracious audience, at least after they’ve had some caffeine.

The Internet made me a morning person, I guess.

Once I’ve tended to my inboxes and assured myself that the world is still spinning, I can relax, brew a very strong pot of coffee, and flip open my laptop. My homepage is EveryBlock, the local news and data aggregator owned by MSNBC, where I receive an invaluable stream of information about my Harlem neighborhood: news items, Flickr photos, real-estate listings, etc. Several times in the past year, I learned of shootings near my apartment from EveryBlock community posts long before any news media deigned to cover the crimes. (Theory: self-informing publics emerge more easily in areas, like Harlem, undergoing rapid gentrification; concerned-neighbor-types make strong, if sometimes irritating, citizen journalists.)

But everything I’ve described so far feels like preamble. My news day truly starts when I fire up two pieces of software: TweetDeck and Reeder. I keep them open all day long and get probably 80% of my news from those two applications.

TweetDeck is a superb real-time news reader, which is how I think about it rather than strictly as a Twitter client. I’m still waiting for someone to build an app that would let me consume any real-time feed — Instagram photos, stock data, a blog that supports RSS Cloud — in the same place. If the Internet is all it’s cracked up to be, this will happen soon.

I follow more than 1,000 accounts on Twitter, and many of them are prolific, so my timeline is often torrential. To deal with this, I usually keep open a lot of narrowly focused Twitter lists as separate TweetDeck columns: colleagues at the Journal, people tweeting about the Occupy movement, other news organizations, that sort of thing. (When I need a break, I might turn to my list of accounts that tweet in all-caps; for lunch, I have food trucks that frequent Midtown.) On the old version of TweetDeck, I keep open a stream and map of my friends’ Foursquare check-ins, which is the gossip column of my social graph.

Early morning is a really nice time on Twitter. As in a greasy spoon, there are regulars sitting in their assigned seats, people like David Wessel and Kelly Evans at the Journal, Jim Roberts at the Times, and Heidi Moore at Marketplace — oh, and all the Brits who have been awake for hours.

I’m most likely to tweet from my own account between 7 and 10 a.m., and then I shift into more of a listening mode. I always keep a few TweetDeck columns visible on one of the monitors at my desk, which some people would find maddeningly distracting, but I find it works better and wastes less time than regularly command-tabbing. Though I’m not always reading Twitter, I feel as though I’m hooked up to it intravenously. The pace of tweets flowing through those TweetDeck columns can be a useful indicator that something’s up or that it’s, quite literally, a slow news day.

The people I follow are heavier linkers than your typical Twitter user, though they all have their styles. To name just a few favorites off the top of my head, there are the think-outlouders (Tim Carmody, Jay Rosen, Michelle Legro), the show-your-workers (Derek Willis, John Keefe), the stylists (Robin Sloan, Cornel West, Juli Weiner, Molly Lambert), the awesome lifecasters (Maureen Johnson, Katie Rosman), and the amazing beat reporters (Amy Langfield, Alexis Madrigal, Eric Holthaus, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries).

Some people, like Liz Heron and Maria Popova, are just really good at tweeting links I haven’t seen yet. That’s about the highest compliment I could pay a Twitter account because the chief frustrations I have with my stream are repetition and myopia. Harsh, I know. It is sometimes argued that the Web pushes us all toward a collective identity, and I certainly feel that way on Twitter sometimes. It’s easy to imagine that “everyone” is talking about something because the thousand people I’ve chosen to follow are talking about it. Or that something is important because it’s inundating my feed. The strategies I employ to avoid that trap include following other people’s streams instead of my own, using Twitter search to keep tabs on topics of interest, and sometimes just stepping away from my computer when I want to scream at my timeline.

Chiefly, though, I make sure I don’t rely on other people to find stuff for me to read. I mean, I do, of course; everything I’ve described so far is powered by other people. But I feel strongly about also hunting for material on my own, which is why RSS remains a huge part of my life. I subscribe to 881 feeds, although recently, in a moment of sanity, I decided to focus on about 200 of them that I find most valuable. (To pick those choice feeds, I mostly followed the advice of Marco Arment: “RSS is best for following a large number of infrequently updated sites.”)

Most of the RSS feeds I follow are blogs I find consistently compelling, like currybetnotnet, Open Culture, Scripting News, Snarkmarket, booktwo.org, apophenia, very small array, The New Aesthetic, ASCII — OK, I’ll stop, but there are many! Some aren’t updated often, so when they pop up in my RSS reader, it’s like a phone call from a close friend with whom I’ve lost touch.

I read a lot of news sites through their RSS feeds, mostly for efficiency’s sake, so that’s how I keep tabs on everything from the Journal to Techmeme. I also have a bunch of hand-crafted alerts that help me monitor the Web, my favorite of which is a feed of popularly highlighted passages in Kindle books. And a lot of my RSS feeds are trade secrets, so don’t ask to see my OPML file.

RSS is frequently said to be a dead technology, which is silly on a lot of levels, but I don’t begrudge the many people who say that, for them, Twitter has replaced RSS. It’s just that I place a premium on reading stuff that others aren’t and don’t find that my Twitter stream reliably reaches into the bowels of the Web.

This was even more important to me when I was last covering a beat — at the Nieman Journalism Lab — and felt that ravenous reading was a competitive advantage. In those days, I was opening around 1,000 items an hour during the workday. Obviously, I wasn’t reading through all of that stuff, but I was hunting for anything new, interesting, or otherwise notable to pass on to followers of the @NiemanLab Twitter account. To wait for that material to surface among my social graph felt too risky. (Yes, this is kind of a deep-seated neurosis.)

Google Reader was my sole tool for consuming RSS for many years, and it came with the added advantage that many of my friends liked to share their discoveries on Reader. That was the best social network I ever used, an intimate group of like-minded folks who were obsessive about content discovery and passionate about reading. Oh, the things we used to find in there! It was quite a party. A really, really nerdy party.

When Google last year removed sharing from Reader, replacing that functionality with Google+, I understood the decision but was disappointed by it. Using Reader became a supremely weird experience: I knew my friends were still in there, combing through their feeds, undoubtedly finding great stuff, but I could no longer cross that chasm between their Readers and mine. Since very few of those friends used Google+, the party was over, and I couldn’t bear to linger. So I switched to Reeder with three e’s, a well-designed application for Macs and iPads that syncs nicely with Google Reader.

These days, according to the wonderful usage statistics that Google provides, I’m consuming RSS in three huge bursts: at the beginning of my day, around 5 p.m., and just before going to bed. Twitter fills in more-or-less everything in between.

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

WSJ.com is the only news homepage I regularly visit throughout the day. Nearly every other site I enter through the side door by following links from RSS feeds and Twitter, so the array of sources I end up reading is pretty broad. That makes trust a wildly important — and fraught — issue.

I trust many of the people I follow on Twitter and other social networks. Their sharing a link confers a bit of trust on that item since I know it has already passed through a decent filter. Nat Torkington, for instance, puts together a daily post for O’Reilly Radar called “Four short links,” and he has such a great track record at picking those links, I’ll usually click on all four without even thinking about it. He rarely lets me down.

There is also institutional trust. I’m well aware of the gauntlets through which an article much pass before, say, the Journal will publish it, so I’m pretty trusting of anything that makes it that far. But there’s a limit to this approach: The New York Times tells me I’ve read 172 of their articles in the past 30 days. Surely, some portion of them were not up to snuff. I’d be a sap to trust all 172 just because they were published in the Times, however rigorous their editorial process may be.

So I tend to think about trust on the level of individual pieces — and, over time, writers. I’m most interested in whether I can trust the author of a piece to treat the subject skeptically, which is just a reaction to what I find lacking in so much of what I read. Where did all this credulousness come from?

To use tech journalism as an example, I wish I could entirely avoid certain sites that regurgitate press releases and write sentences like, 2011 was a pretty incredible year for the company, but its CEO says this year will be even better! But those sites, to their credit, tend to be first with breaking news in an industry I closely follow, so they’re unavoidable.

The tech news sites and reporters I truly value are those with that rare critical eye that’s averse to hype and generous with interpretation. Among many I can count on for that are Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, Adrianne Jeffries and the entire staff of Betabeat, Peter Kafka and Kara Swisher at All Things D, Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb, Ryan Tate at Gawker, Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land, and Julia Angwin at the Journal.

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?

I used to subscribe to the print editions of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and, when I lived up there, the Boston Globe, along with an array of magazines from New York to The Nation. But I’ve slowly given them up, and since my New Yorker subscription lapsed last year, I haven’t been regularly receiving any tangible news. (I still pick up a magazine on newsstands about once a week.)

So I read the vast majority of my news on my laptop at home and desktop computer at work, relying on tools I’ve described above. App store, schmapp store: I still think Web browsers are by far the best reading platform, at least for someone with ridiculous habits like me. And there’s plenty of innovation happening around how we get news, particularly breaking news, in the browser. Two great examples last year were the New York Daily News covering Occupy Wall Street and Reuters covering Arab Spring. This year I’m sure we’ll see cool new mobile interfaces for news that don’t require apps.

Which is not to say I don’t enjoy reading in apps and on tablets. I use Instapaper to save long articles for later and read those on my iPad, mostly while commuting on the subway. I read a lot of academic papers by saving them to Dropbox, which syncs with GoodReader, another great iPad app for reading. And for about a year, I’ve been reading most books with Kindle for iPad, the only downside of which is that my bookshelves are frozen in time.

I am an unabashed fan of local TV news and try to watch as much as possible, especially when I’m traveling and don’t know the area well. At home in New York, I usually enjoy NY1 and feel fortunate to live in a city with 24-hour local news. The PIX11 News at Ten is kind of my guilty pleasure: it’s a kitschy broadcast that knows local news can be narrowly focused without being trivial. And I grew up watching Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons on WNBC at 11, so I feel loyal to them.

My time for radio is when I’m showering, and lately, I’ve been listening to Nick Cannon’s morning show on 92.3 FM. He is awful in an addictive way. They also play a lot more music than their competitors and syndicate a gossip roundup by Perez Hilton that catches me up on whatever Elton John has to say about Madonna today. But on mornings when big news is breaking, I’ll switch to 1010 WINS.

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

I just read for the first time Joan Didion’s essay about political journalism during the 1988 presidential campaign, “Inside Baseball.” But here’s the thing, and this is common: I have no idea how I discovered it! I’m constantly opening up tabs like everyone else, detaching these URLs from their origins. Which is why …

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

… it would be nice if my browser reminded me where I found a link by searching my Twitter stream and RSS feeds for it.

I would also like a service to call and wake me up for huge news events as determined by the velocity of my Twitter timeline and certain lists. If any of the streams exceeded, say, 50% of average tweets per minute for that time of day, my phone would start ringing.

And Chuck Klosterman once wrote “A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.” By 2041,

the entire Internet is replaced by “news blow,” a granular microbe that allows information to be snorted, injected, or smoked. Data can now be synthesized into a water-soluble powder and absorbed directly into the cranial bloodstream, providing users with an instantaneous visual portrait of whatever information they are interested in consuming.

He was mocking people like me, I know. Still, news blow, please.

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