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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.

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