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Getting the News — Chris Dixon

(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 Zach SewardAnil Dash, and Megan Garberhere.)

This week we spoke to Chris Dixon, co-founder of Hunch. Chris has been in the startup world for ten years, creating companies of his own and investing in others about to get big. Hunch, his most well-known company, was acquired by eBay in 2011. We thought we’d ask Chris what his news routine was — when you’re on the cutting edge of tech, information is vital. Chris is the most unassuming angel investor you might ever meet, and took the trouble to come by the News.me offices to be interviewed in person. Below he shares his tricks of the trade on making Twitter a news tool, converting information to ideas, and keeping up with the Kardashians.

How do you get your news throughout the day?

It used to be the paper — going back to when I’d read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal every day for ten years. But I don’t read in paper anymore. I haven’t for a few years now. I started migrating to RSS, reading blogs, and now I’ve stopped doing that, too.

It’s all Twitter — with the exception of maybe checking the New York Times homepage once a day, to see if some major international thing happened that I somehow missed on Twitter. Twitter is the first thing I check in the morning. It’s become the best place to aggregate news — though it has problems. It works well if you’re checking throughout the day. You have to be on it. But if you’re off for six hours, well, that why I have to go to the Times. You miss the window of something happening. And there’s a lot of noise and redundancy.

I read the news as a citizen, but in the tech world, I also read it professionally. Ten years ago, if you didn’t read the Journal every day, people would say, “Oh, did you see the big article about Apple?” And you’d feel like you didn’t know what was going on, and you’d have to go read the Journal. Now it doesn’t happen like that, because the Journal story will already be on tech blogs. 

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.

Does that happen?

No. … rarely. If it does, I figure out where they got it. “Where did you hear that from?” “What could I have been doing?” And then I follow that person or that location. 

Who do you follow that you particularly rely on?

I follow all the standard tech blogs. Beyond that, there’s different things I’m looking for. I follow @WSJ, but I only read the headlines, I don’t pay for the service. I don’t really find that useful. But the headlines are useful. There are people who I follow just to read their tweets, there’s people who I use as an RSS feed for their blog posts, and then there are people I follow for their links.

If @Borthwick writes a blog post, I’ll read it — he writes good ones, and frequently I’ll read the whole thing. And Paul Kedrosky (@pkedrosky), the investor, always links to these really interesting academic finance papers. Actually, with him I use ifttt, “If This Then That.” [Disclosure: Betaworks is an investor in ifttt.] It’s this service you can set up so that if you favorite a Twitter link, it will automatically take the article and puts it in your InstapaperRead it Later, or etc. So I’ll favorite those things and they’ll be on my iPhone the next time I can read the actual article.

Is that how a lot of your news consumption happens? On the iPhone?

Yeah. Twitter too. More than half. If I’m not on my computer, I’m on the iPhone.

What else are you reading on?

iPad, and my Mac.

What about print?

I still occasionally buy the Sunday New York Times. I like the feel, and it’s, I don’t know, retro now. I like print, I just don’t see the point in printing stuff out. I try to avoid printing myself. I don’t have a printer at home.

Is there a difference between how you curate your general Twitter stream and how you curate tech news?

I keep them all in the same feed. I’ve experimented with different lists and things like this for different accounts, but I never find that I keep up with them. It’s funny: I’ve become fairly interested in politics, for example, so I follow someone like @BuzzfeedBen, but then it’s 500 tweets about some inside baseball political stuff. It’s too much. So I unfollow that. That’s actually one of the times I’ll find myself occasionally going to Huffington Post Politics, Buzzfeed, or Slate — something where I’ll sit down and read what happened in the Republican primary. Because I find that the super-heavy Tweeters are too much, and the Times' headlines are just too little.

What are other publications you rely on?

I check the Times once or twice a day. I read a lot of bloggers, does that count? I’m into Apple stuff, so Daring Fireball, MG Siegler writer good stuff, Fred Wilson’s blog for good stuff on venture capital. I find that there’s certain tech blogs, like TechCrunch, where you hear what’s happening, like “so-and-so raised money,” and there’s ones like GigaOm, that have a more interesting, in-depth articles. With TechCrunch I’ll skim the headlines, but with GigaOm I’ll actually go and read the whole thing.

So it’s a curated list, and then you’re curating in your head.

Yeah. You glance through, and you’re saying, “This one’s worth reading.” I find it’s very picture-driven, too. So when people change their avatar, it like completely screws up my patterns. [laughs] Because I’m so used to seeing the blue GigaOm thing, and thinking, “Okay, that’s a 70 percent clickworthiness.”

Do you use Tweetdeck or another client?

I have it on my home computer, but I’m not a power user. I’m already too into this continuous partial attention problem, constantly changing modes, which can be overwhelming — but I find it’s really useful for tracking companies and brand mentions. And I may be unusual in that I barely use Facebook. I use it only because I feel obliged to stay in touch with the masses, but I can’t stand it. I would deactivate it — and I would deactivate LinkedIn, too — were it not for the mere fact that I feel like as an investor, I have to try new products, if someone comes up with a new Facebook product. If it wasn’t for my professional need to do that occasionally, I would deactivate it.

Do you ever get interesting news from Facebook?

Never. I find it’s the opposite of the stereotype. On Facebook it’s all the funny cat things, and on Twitter it’s interesting, serious news. Which I think is somewhat opposite of what people think, at least on the Twitter part. People say, “Well, I don’t want to hear what people had for lunch,” which is not at all my experience of Twitter. You could find somebody who Tweets that stuff, but it’s not the majority of what I see.

What was the last great article you read? And how did you find it?

Actually, for that, I like News.me [the iPad app] quite a bit. My favorite feature is how you can switch between people. At Hunch we call that cross-dressing. I like that in the app I can see the world as Anil Dash sees it. I really enjoy his blog posts — he doesn’t write that often, but when he does they’re really good. He’s more political than me, so I go to him when I want more of a political angle. 

The only iPad magazine I pay for is the New Yorker. It’s actually a really good app. Recently I read really good article, a Malcolm Gladwell article. He’s always good. And this is another ifttt thing — you should really try it — I have a script so that anytime he writes an article, it automatically gets pushed to my Instapaper. 

And that New York Times article on Apple and FoxConn was really good. I thought it was really well-reported, which is unusual. There’s been a lot of really simplistic talk about, for example, suicides at FoxConn, but then when you look at, suicides there are lower than the national average, and so it seemed like very facile analysis. But the New York Times going there and seeing the working conditions — it was well-reported. And yeah, I found that through their Twitter feed. That’s the great thing about Twitter — I probably saw it retweeted like five times, with comments saying, “Great article!” and then I said, “Oh, maybe I should actually read this one.” If it had just been @nytimes, I might not have read it. Because, oh great, another regurgitation of the same facts. But I saw somebody i respected say this is worth reading. And then I did.

What else did I read? I don’t find much of mainstream journalism interesting. I read the Economist, the New Yorker, and the New York Times occasionally. The Journal used to be great. I think the Journal used to be by far the best press. By far. What else? I read a lot of industry stuff. I go to Hacker News and I look at the top links there. I don’t really use reddit or digg. I occasionally type in Google News. And if I do go to the Huffington Post, it’s to stay loosely in touch with what’s up with the Kardashians.

So you’re interested?

Not really, no. [laughing] Just to have some contact with mainstream culture.

How have your tailored your information to help you with the work you’re doing?

I’ve always thought it’s important to be up on these things. Often I’ll have a meeting, and we’ll be chatting, and some event that happened that day will come up. It’s not that I want to show off that I’ve read the news, it’s more that I want to make sure the meetings I have that day are fruitful. And a lot of the time they’re fruitful because you have common touchstones, and those are often the news events of the day.

I also blog a lot, and I think of it this way: I have information that comes in, and then I meet with interesting people. I measure whether or not I’ve had an interesting day or week by my blogging productivity. So it’s a three-stage machine, right. Input raw material and information; meet with interesting people, and then learn and process that information in a post. It’s a metric to see whether or not I’m doing a good job.

I didn’t really think about this until I started blogging five years ago. Then I found that most of the satisfaction of it was in measuring yourself — seeing if you learn — and then looking at the comments. Here’s this wacky idea I’ve formed throughout the week: what do people think?

I measure the quality of my blog by the quality of the comments. I didn’t even look at pageviews for a long time. I try to use the comments as a disciplined metric. I want my writing style to get the most interesting and informed people to discuss it.

The quality of the comments, and not the quantity?

Less so. I mean, zero comments is bad. [laughing] In blogging there’s a sweet spot. If there’s too few readers, and too few comments, there’s no real discussion, and if there’s too much, like TechCrunch, you get trolls and flamewars and whatever. In the middle you can actually get a nice discussion going.

Is there anything missing from the way you consume news? Any tools you wish you had?

There’s a lot of little technical things that need to get fixed. Like the fact that I have to remember, before I get on the subway, to download the Instapaper, the iPad app, whatever — I don’t think this stuff is built for New York, where you’re offline sometimes. And Twitter — I think it’s the best tool so far, but I doesn’t feel like the ultimate way to consume news. For all the reasons described — like you miss six hours of stuff. But it’s definitely better than anything else I know of. RSS started to feel the way that the inbox does now, with that number. It’s like this nagging to-do list, and Google Reader started to feel like that too. Just another thing you need to do. I think that’s the thing that’s nice about Twitter. There’s this general feeling that it’s okay if you miss stuff, because it often does come back if it’s important enough. I mean, think about the SOPA/PIPA debate. You could have been offline for two days and you still would have heard about it. If it’s big enough, it’ll come back. 

It’s an interesting time right now. We mentioned Fred Wilson earlier — he’s the most interesting person writing about venture capital, and it’s this sort of bizarre thing where he’s considered an amateur, while a reporter at the New York Times who’s never done anything related to venture capital is a professional. When of course, in reality, it’s exactly the opposite. 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.

(All interviews conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)

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