News.me

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.”

All those services have really diminishing returns once you pass 75 users. Any big story, in any of the services I follow, if it didn’t get hit by one of those 75 people, it doesn’t matter. I change the lineup every so often, if I feel like it’s getting stale, but I’ve always found on any of those services that if I go above a hundred follows, it’s exhausting and I have to scale it down.

I think it’s really interesting that Flickr is one of your core sources. I haven’t heard that before.

I’m very visual, so if you log in to my Flickr stream, it’s mostly just graffiti and babies. All my friends are putting up baby shots and all my graffiti friends are putting up graffiti. But it’s a nice break. Certain sources are really trying intellectually. Facebook doesn’t present information that well, and Twitter can be exhausting. Flickr is like a palate cleanser. I can log in and it takes five seconds to see if anything new is posted.

And then Stellar is usually the one I go to last, but I’ve actually increasingly come to depend on it as a source. It’s a meta-layer. If I’m really busy, I’ll actually just read Stellar, and not any of the other sources. Often I’ll unfollow people on Twitter, and I don’t follow them on Facebook, but if they put up anything important, I’ll see it on Stellar, because one of my friends has favorited it. So Stellar is good. It has built-in thresholding. because if someone favorites something, it’s a pretty strong signal. Even there, though, there are some people, like Anil Dash, who I think you interviewed, he’s like a super-favoriter. I had to unfollow him on Stellar, which has never happened before, because he was favoriting too many things. I’d log in and it would just be 400 things from Anil. So now, I still see his stuff on Stellar, but only if other friends favorite it. He’s too promiscuous with his stars. It could be anything. Dude got a haircut — STAR! I think most people reserve it for people for — well, I give out five stars a day. I think that’s pretty normal. If you want to give out ten, be generous, that’s okay. But 100? I star something when it makes me go, “Wow.” I have to have a wow reaction to it.

Okay, what happens next?

I go to my RSS. I hate RSS. It’s awful. I hate seeing 800 stories when you log in the morning. And you have to find some way to go through them. I’m a completist — If I see the number, I’m going to have to scan all 800. So I’m pretty selective. I’ve winnowed down that list a lot over time. If I’m reading a source that’s not giving me good stuff or making me feel depressed, I’ll cut it. I’ll usually go in the same order, which is least important to most important — it’s like wading into the cesspool, so you want to go slowly.

I start with Techmeme and Mediagazer, which is a nice way, because generally they favorite only the important stuff, so I can just scan down the headlines, maybe click one of them, but I always know what’s going on in media or tech. I try to give myself a little variety, because I don’t want to get too stuck in one area. I have local sources. I rotate it, but it’s a selection of actually hyperlocal sources, city neighborhood blogs.

And then I have two folders that are left that I have to like, face. And there’s always this moment of pure disgust and horror. The first is “New York City Blogs,” so it’s the competitive set around Gothamist, which includes Cityroom, Curbed, Gawker, HuffPo, the local WSJ blog, New York Magazine, a few more. There I’m just looking to see if they did something that we didn’t already cover. And hopefully, by the time I’ve gotten there, I’ve already spotted the stories that we’re going to use, and then one of my questions is: Did they cover the story already? If they did, I want to alert the editors that they need to prioritize this story because New York Magazine already covered it 20 minutes ago. You remember I’m doing this at 8 a.m., so if they already covered it, at 7 a.m., that must mean their night editor did it, which means they must have thought it was pretty important. So that folder generally doesn’t make me feel good.

And then the last folder is “The News.” I read four or five major newspapers: Times, Post, Daily News, Journal, LA Times, WashPo. There can be 200 stories by 8 a.m. there. Massively duplicated. You think newspapers do a lot of original coverage? Read all of them.

At the end of this process, I want to send an email to my editors that says, “Here’s some stuff to look out for.” So while I’m reading I have a text document open and I’m trying to find the five to 10 most important links in all of this information.

And then once I get into work, if I’m working at the office, throughout the day I’ll do an hour of work, and then 15 more minutes of this, rather than leave it until the end of the day. But sometimes when I’m out of the office until I get home, I have this backlog. And then it’s like, what do you do? You can just declare bankruptcy — you can go to RSS and just click “All read.” But then you’re like, "But what if I missed something important?" It’s a real spiritual problem.

When I’m home, I really try to pay attention to my family. This routine, if you don’t find some way to cut it down, can really take over your life. You add a couple more RSS sources, and all you do is read. So it’s a constant balance to scale this back to something manageable. I’m always looking for tools.

What the ideal tool for you, the one you’re missing?

The ideal tool is — instead of doing all this bullshit I just described to you, I would go to one place, and it would have a perfectly ranked list that pulls in all these sources, and this list that I’m constantly coming up with would be at the top. Artifical intelligence in the app is based on everything it knows about me and it’s perfect and it works just right.

Is there a world in which you would trust the algorithm?

Probably not… yet. This whole thing I just described to you is a very sophisticated and almost artistic process, often weighing, like any editor, what stories are important compared to others. And you know, once I send out my list — there are eight editors at Gothamist that handle the actual writing. They don’t always agree with me. It’s a group voting system. It would take one hell of an artificial intelligence to get the process.

There are three different processes: I’m looking for stuff for Gothamist, I’m looking for stuff that’s interesting in the industry, and I’m looking for graffiti. The tool would have to recognize that I’m looking for all that stuff. I think it’ll be a while before we have something that is really good at it. But I’m also happy to take things that work a little bit. When I’m out of the office, those emails I get from those different services can be really helpful. So yeah, I’m really excited about a future in which I no longer have to do this. If I had one request for the Internet, it would be to save me two hours every day. I waste two hours of my day, on, you know, interesting work, I like to read, so this is two hours of reading, but if I didn’t have to do it, I could go like, exercise.

What makes my routine different is just how localized it is. This is not easy work. To really know what’s going on in a city the way Gothamist does, it can take years to find out who are the right sources for things. For every topic, it’s not enough to just find out what the story is — that’s an aggregating function, but then, what do you do with it? Our editors then have sources they call up and ask, “Can you give me more information?”

How do you build that network?

Just, over time. We were not journalism students. I work in the Internet, right, but I don’t work in the get-rich-quick Internet, the let’s-build-a-company-and-flip-it Internet. I recognize what we do as media, as a form of journalism. When I talk to old reporters who work at the Metro section — we’re not that different. We’re still learning, and it takes time. We have a ways to go. But there’s a difference between we do, which is trying to find the best, and what they do, which is trying to find everything. 

I think it’s really interesting for you that the news from your social networks, like Facebook and Flickr, bleeds into the “actual” news you cover for the city.

You know, I grew up in New York. I went to college in New York. I went to graduate school in New York. Everyone I’ve ever known in my life is here. So those people are a font of New York information. To that group I’ve also added people I’ve met through the Internet in the fields of technology and media. You know, if I’ve known somebody after 10 years on the internet, like Anil, or Jason Kottke, they must be pretty interesting. You live in a place long enough, you collect enough Internet friends, and you stay friends with them, eventually the best ones boil to the top. 

I’ll check Foursquare and Instagram for news when I’m out, too. My mobile process has a lot of the stuff I’ve covered, but there are sources I never check except when I’m out on the street. With Instagram, it’s mostly, “Dude, what are my friends doing? Where are they?” and same thing with Foursquare. “Is anyone else doing anything interesting?” I’m interested where my friends are going. Sometimes if something important is going on, it’ll show up there. Sometimes for tech and media news, you realize something is going on because of where people are checking in. 

What was the last great article you read?

This week I only read one that really stood out: it was Susan Dominus’ mass psychogenic hallucination piece about the girls who were all twitching. ["What Happened to the Girls in Le Roy," New York Times Magazine.] It’s a great article. She’s a great metro writer, and she really knits together this story — you know, it was a medical mystery, why did these 15 teenagers start twitching? But it’s also a story about mass hysteria, and what happens when the media begins feeding these stories. Because it turns out mass hysteria actually gets worse when their story is covered by the media. It interested me as a parable for the Internet age, about media, but it was also just really interesting.

I think it’s important, a couple times a day, to branch out and read something you haven’t heard anything about, and get some new ideas. So I’m always looking for sources that can provide me that. You know, something not related to my interests, just to learn about something. Longreads are generally better for your brain than short-reads. You can do sarcasm in 100 words, you can do contempt in 50. But to do real understanding in 200 words is difficult. That’s why blogging is really hard. But i think that in 10,000 words, most topics can be adequately and intelligently discussed. I don’t think longreads are inherently better than short-form — because I know masters of short-form, who can write a three-paragraph blog post that is like poetry. It tells you something you didn’t know in a very interesting way, with lyricism and humanity. But shortform lends itself to stupidity if it’s not practiced right.

For almost 10 years now I’ve been in the media. You have to ask yourself: what is your contribution to the culture? Are we making this world better or worse? I try to make it better, by promoting values I believe in, by hiring writers who share those values, and by not standing for stupidity to go up on our sites, if I can avoid it. You can’t catch everything and I’m not perfect, but that at least is our goal. There are other sites whose goal is to just get as much traffic and make as much money as possible, and I don’t think that is congruent with being happy, or being wise. Wisdom is something i really care about. Making a really high-quality product — odds are it’s not going to make you rich, because in our country, we tend to reward materialism with wealth, and celebrity with wealth, and that’s just a fact. So if you want wealth, I can see why you might want to publish that. But I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not that interested in wealth, at that level. I don’t need that much to be happy. To compete with Nick Denton or Arianna Huffington would mean embracing those values, and I don’t want to. And so everything I do, including what I read, is shaped by that.

Find Jake on Twitter and at his personal website.

(All interviews conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)

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