At first glance, my daily media routine may sound time-consuming: I look at a few news-organization websites, including the home pages traditional enterprises such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, clicking through to articles of particular interest. I periodically glance at headlines in Google Reader and similar services, which collect links from a variety of sources, traditional and new, and are related to a variety of places and topics I’ve designated. I scan my email for items—articles, blog posts, videos, data and the like—that friends or colleagues might have flagged. I keep an eye on several Twitter lists, and I check to see what a few Facebook friends are discussing. If there’s breaking news I care about, I check back with sites I consider authoritative or at least reliable.
Actually, all of that doesn’t take too long. I used to spend more time reading a couple of newspapers each morning and watching the news in the evening. But I’m vastly better informed now.
I don’t believe everything I read or hear, because I apply the principles in Chapter 2. And when I need to be absolutely sure about something, I dig deeper.
Given the relatively short time that we’ve been living in a digital-media world, it’s common wisdom to say we’re in the earliest days of figuring out how to sort through the flood of information that pours over us each day, hour, minute. But we already have many ways to be better informed.
I use a variety of tools and methods each day, applying the principles outlined in Chapter 2 through a variety of filters and tactics. But the main tools I use are my brain and my instincts.
The most essential filters are people and institutions I’ve come to trust. In the days of overwhelmingly dominant mass media, we had little option but to put some trust in those sources. We soon learned that they were deeply flawed institutions that, all too often, led us grossly astray or failed to address vital matters, global to local. But they also did, and continue to do (though less and less these days), some of the most important journalism. They’d have held more trust if they’d been less arrogant and more transparent. But there’s real value, even now, in understanding what a bunch of journalists, including editors, believe is the most important news today in their own communities.
Aggregation—someone else’s collection of items that you might find interesting—has become an absolutely essential filter. There’s computer-assisted aggregation and human aggregation, in various combinations. Let’s look at a few of them.
Google News, relentlessly machine-based, isn’t bad as a zeitgeist of what journalists around the world believe is important (or was important in the past 24 hours or so), but Google’s almost religious belief in the power of computer to displace humans has detracted from the service’s usefulness.
Yahoo! once was the undisputed leader in aggregation, because it understood the value of human beings in this process better than others in its arena. It’s still reasonably good, but it’s slipping.
Topic-specific aggregation is rising in importance and quality. For example, I’m a fan of TechMeme for aggregating what’s hot in the tech world, in part because Gabe Rivera, its founder, has clearly seen a vital role for human input in the form of an editor. (And while every media junkie has been reading the Romenesko blog for years, MediaGazer, a TechMeme site, is moving up fast as a must-follow service.)
Search has always been useful, but now it’s vital. Google, Yahoo! and Bing offer useful news-search systems, letting you use keywords to flag stories of interest. When you settle on searches you find useful, you can scan the results for items you may want to check further. I search for things like digital media, entrepreneurship (which I teach) and many other topics that are of interest to me.
Bloggers are some of my best purely human aggregators. The ones with expertise in a particular domain, plus the energy to keep on top of the news, have become valuable brokers in my news consumption. If you’re not following the work of bloggers who go deep into areas you care about, you can’t be well informed, period.
Twitter has become a must-have alert system—but you should realize that it’s the antithesis of slow news: a rapid-fire collection of ideas, thoughts and links, sometimes useful, sometimes not. The best “tweeters” keep up a flow of headlines—the 140-character limit on tweets doesn’t allow for much more—that have links to deeper looks into what they’re flagging. Probably the most exciting development in the Twitter ecosystem is precisely that: It’s becoming an ecosystem in which others are creating tools to make it more useful. I’ll talk more about how I publish using Twitter in an upcoming chapter.
If you follow more than a few Twitter-folk, you can easily get overwhelmed. My suggestion is to use the service’s “lists” feature, which lets you create or follow—outside of your regular Twitter stream—different subgroups of people who pay attention to specific topics. I follow several lists created by other Twitter users, including Robert Scoble’s “Tech News People,” a list of 500 technology writers.
An essential tool for keeping track of everything we aggregate is RSS, or Really Simple Syndication. It’s been around for more than a decade, and from my perspective only grows in value despite some suggestions that it’s fading in importance. Essentially, RSS is a syndication method for online content, allowing readers of blogs and other kinds of sites to have their computers and other devices automatically retrieve the content they care about —and giving publishers an easy way to help readers retrieve it.
Those are only a few of the ways you can find reliable news and information, of course, and the tools, especially for aggregation, are still somewhat primitive, especially in aggregation. Later in this book I’ll discuss the need for much better combinations of human and machine intelligence; for example, tools that can measure by subtler yardsticks than popularity will give us vastly better ways to understand what’s happening in the world.
While we have ever more and better ways to find the “good stuff,” as it were, there’s a problem: We’ve also never had so many ways to find information that’s useless, or worse.
What could be worse than useless? Information that’s damaging if you act on it, that’s what. So we’re going to spend some time on how to avoid falling for things that are either wrong or come under the category we might call “dangerous if swallowed.”