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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.)

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