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Getting the News: 20 Weeks Later

This is our 20th post in the “Getting the News” series. For the past 20 weeks we’ve brought you perspectives on journalism from 18 incredible writers, thinkers, and innovators: entrepreneurs, journalists, designers, authors, and computer scientists. This week, we thought we’d take a look back. We started this series as an attempt to understand the changing media landscape around us. How are the most informed people on the web getting the news? How do the cutting-edge stay informed? Here’s what we learned.

On Television

Sometimes, our respondents disagreed. When we asked about television news, we got quite a range of responses, from Anil Dash:

I hate, hate, hate television news. Hate it. I stopped watching it entirely after 9/11 and hadn’t turned it back on for more than a year after that for any reason. Even now it makes me frustrated and angry and annoyed, even just in the short doses I get when I’m passing through an airport or whatever. I think it’s generally irresponsible and destructive to society.

To Alan Murray:

So, if you could see my office, where Ashley and I are sitting, I have [counting] one, two, three, four, five, screens, I’m sorry, six screens and three devices. I have two screens where I keep an eye on business news. I keep one of them on FOX Business News, and with the other I’ll sometimes watch CNBC and sometimes watch CNN, depending on what’s going on.

On RSS

Nobody, as far as we can tell, is 100 percent satisfied with their RSS Reader. Patricia Sauthoff was trying to get used to the Google Reader redesign. Zach Seward, epic news junkie, was daunted by the number of articles he’d face. And Jake Dobkin recounted his daily struggle with his RSS feed as if it were a battle he fought daily, part of the long war against the news: “wading into the cesspool” with “pure disgust and horror.”

On Social Discovery

Our sources are generally happier about Twitter. Alan Murray said he relied on it to fill in coverage gaps: “If it’s important enough, I can assume somebody has tweeted about it.” Gordon Crovitz added to that sentiment: “Often I find great articles thanks to Twitter: One of my rules is that if three of the people I follow link to the same article, then I always read the article, too. This is the new serendipity.”

Political reporters Zeke Miller and Evan McMorris-Santoro are on it all day when they’re on the campaign trail. McMorris-Santoro said, “Most of my news consumption these days is flipping through the phone over coffee in the morning and then checking Twitter while standing in the back of some library annex or barbecue restaurant. (Note to campaigns: book more barbecue restaurants.)” Zach Seward was a bit more ambivalent about his Twitter feed, constantly weeding out repeats and searching for perspectives outside of his feed. “Though I’m not always reading Twitter, I feel as though I’m hooked up to it intravenously,” he added. And Zeke brought up a fascinating point about coverage on Twitter: 

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.

Why is getting the news so hard?

As interesting as it is to hear tips and tricks from brilliant media-philes, one cold harsh reality became clear: there’s too much stuff.

Our interviewees are swamped by too much information and too little time. Hilary Mason put it succinctly:

If we take a step back, there’s this universe of data that’s happening around us, and some of it is really relevant to the things we need to know to do our jobs or the things we’re really interested in. The problem is then — out of that whole universe of data, how do you find the things you need to know at the time you need to know them in a way that is least intrusive into your life?

Some of our respondents wake up at the crack of dawn and are on their social networks in the early hours of the morning. Others start later but are obsessively combing news sites throughout the day. Some — a sleep-deprived, elite echelon — do both. The morning, as Zach Seward eloquently wrote, was about frantically trying to figure out whatever he’d missed overnight. Ken Fisher's morning routine is blearily accompanied by the news:

When I first wake-up, the most important news is in my inbox, accessible to me by whatever phone I am using at the moment. I’ve checked it within five minutes of getting up, probably while I am brushing my teeth. What’s there? From there, I usually load up AP and scan headlines. I’m still pretty groggy at this point, and I may walk right into a wall while trying to turn a corner reading the AP.  At this point in my day, I’m looking for day-altering news. I don’t read much at this hour, I just mostly note its existence.

When we asked them for tools that might make their lives easier, the most common response was something along the lines of “more time.” Jake Dobkin asked for a sophisticated AI that would do all his reportage for him. Zach took a different tack, and asked for “news blow.” Another common wish was for something that could sift through the many sources facing them better, not just faster. Jake aggressively monitors his social media networks so he can get better information more quickly:

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.”

Evan Williams, meanwhile, felt that “non-new content” was too hard to discover:

The web is completely oriented around new-thing-on-top. Our brains are also wired to get a rush from novelty. But most ‘news’ we read really doesn’t matter. And a much smaller percentage of the information I actually care about or would find useful was produced in the last few hours than my reading patterns reflect.

And Chris Dixon said:

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.

Where that leaves us…

We’re not going to stop doing these interviews, though they may become less frequent as we start focusing on other things. We’ve learned a tremendous amount from this incredible group of people, and applying these learnings every day to the products we’re building.

We’re refining News.me for Email so you only have to open one thing to find out what you need to know for the day. We launched News.me for iPhone to deliver the must-read news from Twitter and Facebook when you’re out and about. 

Now that we’ve reached out to who we know, we want to ask you — who else should we ask about their news habits? Who else has a media diet you just have to know more about? And while we’re asking questions — what do you think about our findings? Do they match up with your experience? Tell us @newsdotme or at email me at sonia@news.me.

Maybe our favorite takeaway from the many awesome interviews we did was this one line from Chris Dixon:

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.

That nailed it for Team News.me, because for us, that’s a problem statement we can get behind. 

Sonia, Jake, and the News.me team

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