The new ‘news’, and how you find it

How do you follow the news? – Do you read a newspaper, in paper form, or online (or several)?  … watch ‘the News’ on TV? … listen to ‘the News’ on the radio? … read news websites? These approaches to following the news (even online news sites) are grounded in ’20th century’ thinking, and are in many ways inefficient and ineffective.

Which brings us to the question ‘What is news?’ (simply ‘new information’?). When you want to find information, and find that Google doesn’t help you find the full answer, what then? Wouldn’t it be nice if the news and information that we want to hear comes to us in a personalized way?

There are some excellent, recently developed online tools available to assist you finding, more efficiently and more effectively, the news and information that interests you, whether it be current affairs, work related insights, or topics of personal interest.  In this post I comment on some of these tools, in particular RSS feedsGoogle, Twitter and Quora.

Historical news services have many strengths:

  • newspapers, magazines, journals and trade-press publications summarize general news and specific topics (but you are limited to the articles in the paper that you have chosen to read, and the publications that you have access to)
  • TV and radio News reports provide an executive summary of current affairs on a global, national and regional basis, and are usually prepared in a professional manner (but at the discretion of the editor)
  • TV and radio stations also provide specialist programming on specific news topics (but on-demand TV/radio is only beginning to arrive, and the good content is often spread across several channels, sometimes not available if on subscription channels or in other countries)

The internet gives you all this (most news, and newspaper articles are available also online, and increasingly more televised content also, although there are still many geographic restrictions due to archaic media rights that typically exist to protect media organisations) and more:

  • RSS feeds will bring your favorite web pages to you, as they are published
  • Google search (and others) gives you the possibility to search across the web

There are still limitations however – RSS feeds only bring you the news from the sites that you ask for however, while Google assumes you know broadly at least what you are looking for, and only provides content that is available on the internet and relevant to your search (and usually a lot also that is not so relevant).

Information overload from volume of news?

If your news/information preferences include also specialist or trade publications, websites or blogs that you want to follow, as well as personal interest topics, then the volume of news (whether paper or digital) becomes greater – in the past people either read less (either through ignorance, or accepting that there was a limit to their capacity) or tried, but struggled, to keep on top of more.

These challenges remain, and if you are not in control, they are naturally greater, as the volume of information has grown and access to and cost of information (through email, webpages, blogs, TV, radio, paper, etc.) has become significantly easier and cheaper.

Regarding this information explosion, Clay Shirky famously stated (link to vopod.com):

“It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure”

While various technological filtering tools are being developed, the last filter (or first, depending on how you look at it) is you – which in itself causes some people a problem, but it’s really just another way of working.

Each person has to find their comfortable approach to filtering and managing information and a certain acceptance/understanding as to what sources are critical (must read) – a favorite phrase I’ve heard somewhere is:

“Twitter is like a river (or even a ‘fire hose’), that you dip your hand into once in a while, but won’t ever be able to stop”

Information can be documented and shared quicker, more cheaply and more easily than ever before – just ask any blogger. Much of the information always existed, only it was restricted to small, distinct social networks – surfing the internet, following links from one page to another, makes it quickly apparent that there is a lot of good content out there, more than one person could ever read. It is therefore important to focus, and decide what to read.

Tools to manage the vast flow of information

The last few years, and the development of Web 2.0 have created personalized news.

Personalized news exists in the form of email newsletters, RSS feeds, Twitter streams or Facebook updates – it is driven by your choices as to who to ‘follow’. These updates arrive in the form of ‘push notifications’ as and when they are generated (in realtime), and include also updates and news articles that are shared with you by people that you follow.

This is fundamentally different to classical approaches to following news whereby you are at the mercy of generalist or editorial selections, the timing of the publication of those articles or magazines, and your choice of which magazines to follow.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when such pre-packaged editorial work creates brilliance – I still scan a few news websites (my examples are BBC.co.uk, FT.com, Guardian.co.uk, Handelsblatt.de, NYTimes.com) and I still subscribe to some news magazines, albeit online (namely economist.com).

Twitter

Most media organisations and news providers are now using to Twitter to provide headlines, and links to full articles when the news is published, meaning realtime news delivery (if you want it), and your choice as to whether you read the article or not.

Most of my news is brought to me directly by Twitter in this way (you can see who I follow here). Within Twitter I have created Twitter ‘lists’ (groups of people and organizations I follow, categorized into lists defined by me – you can see my Twitter lists here), covering work related matters, general news and specialist journalists (with a slant to more opinion, topics and selected authors/journalists), bloggers, friends, specific companies/people (including clients, politicians, my own firm, etc.), and other topics that interest me.

Limiting the number of people that you choose to follow (on Twitter, via RSS, etc.) naturally means you see less, but the flow of information doesn’t stop, it just continues without you being aware. The different news ‘streams’ that you can set up allow you to differentiate them by importance. I personally prefer to keep email for direct communications, and read most RSS feeds (news articles and blog posts), but I only scan tweets, and read those (including any links that interest me) – this allows me to follow a relatively large number of people without having to read too much.

I usually browse twitter.com (or the Twitter App for iPad), but to browse the lists that I have set up I use either Tweetdeck (where twitter lists are shown in separate columns) or Flipboard (separate ‘magazines’ where tweets are summarized, with a part of the underlying linked content, in a handy, paginated format).

Finally, if you think Twitter is about ‘what people ate for lunch’ you are wrong – for many people it has progressed well beyond that, into an effective news gathering tool – per Twitter’s own description of itself:

Twitter is the best way to discover what’s new in your world

Twitter is a real-time information network that connects you to the latest information about what you find interesting

You don’t have to tweet to get value from Twitter

Quora

I recently found Quora, a question and answer (Q&A) website, where you can ask questions, submit answers to questions raised by others, or simply read questions and answers posted by others. Q&A websites have been around before including:

Quora seems however to currently have momentum – it is also well integrated with other major social sites (Twitter, Facebook), has an effective ranking/voting system, aggregates similar questions, and seems to be easy to search and operate.

I’ve tried Quora, asked and answered some questions – my overall impression is that this is a very smooth website, which fills a gap in information monitoring. One might ask why anyone would freely give up time to answer questions (you can ask this on Quora if you want!) – one reason, in my view, is that it creates an interesting dialogue, whereby the provision of an answer also helps that person engage and learn also (it is often said that you only really learn when you teach).

Per Quora’s own description of itself:

Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it

Conclusions – Three key sources for ‘news 2.0’

My initial experiences with Quora make me think that that news and information retrieval has now, to a certain extent, been completed:

  • RSS feeds, allowing one to subscribe to updates of a website (eg, a news page)
  • Google search (or similar) allows one to search the web for almost any fact or news article
  • Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook) allows one to create a news feed (a ‘twitterstream’) that is tailored to one’s preferences, bringing only relevant and interesting news (and not only the news that you know you want, but also the news that you might want, based on news that is shared by people who you follow)
  • Quora (or similar) allows one to ask questions on anything not covered by Google search or Twitter

I’ve listed these sites in order of appropriate use – first search (Google), then monitor updates that come to you (Twitter), then ask for anything else (Quora). If your answer doesn’t come from one of these channels, it likely doesn’t yet exist.

The system’s not quite perfect yet – none of the tools can provide answers that are not on the internet or won’t be put there; if the answer to a search/question is in someone’s head, and they are unwilling to share, the internet won’t help you (but has a far greater, more global chance than just your own personal networks). They also limited to the people that you follow – until artificially intelligent news collators are developed we are restricted in this way (I don’t think we are too far off this however – Twitter and Quora already suggest people to follow, based on your profile/activity).

These tools also continue to gain greater power, as more people use them (partly a generational thing, but partly also reflecting the development of societies’ and corporations’ perceptions of privacy issues and their boundaries).

I wrote a blog post earlier this year ‘Is the iPad Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”?’ where I commented on how the iPad, combines with the power of the internet and websites like Wikipedia, to create an immediately accessible source of all knowledge (some of it behind paywalls or firewalls however) – the ability to ask questions and capture experiences and opinions of others beyond documented knowledge takes this a step further.

This streamlined access to personalized news creates new challenges, beyond information overload/filter – information addiction and time management, whereby we want to read more and more, to learn, and to share. This forces us to make new choices, but at least they are empowered choices that we can make, not ones that are made for us, or restricted from us due to limitations in networks/communication, or cost of information delivery.

But back to my original question – How do you follow the news? – isn’t it time to move on? Can you afford not to?


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7 Responses

  1. Thanks for the tip on Quora. I’ll dive into it over the coming days.

    One tool that any reader of this blog post may find complimentary to your ideas on filtering news is http://www.instapaper.com/.

    While I am looking for a specific answer, I often stumble upon other content that looks interesting. If I start reading it I get distracted from my original objective which is not always a desirable outcome.

    With Instapaper I can with one click on a previously setup bookmark on my browser named ‘Read Later’ and the content of the page is stored in Instapper’s cloud for me to read later.

    What makes this service really useful for me is their iPad app. I generally use my Mac for working and then at a later point in time I use my iPad to catch up in a relaxed manner on interesting pages that I stumbled across over recent days. I love the combination:)

    • I agree – I’m a big fan of Instapaper too, although it does sometimes feel a little bit like the virtual/digital version of the ‘paper hoarder’ or ‘procastination’ (why should I read that now, when I could file it for later …?).

      This all means that one does need to have some sort of routine/approach to regularly reading (or deleting) what’s been saved for later.

  2. Matthew –
    I agree with much of your summary of what is news and how we receive it. But I’m not so sure I agree with your conclusion.
    Traditionally, I think, our understanding of what’s news to us took the form information pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is the information that we know/see/learn first-hand and trust.
    At level two there’s a larger body of information that flows to us through filters — I’d call them editors, whom we come to view as experts and whose judgment (in what’s news, in what matters, and what doesn’t) we come to trust.
    And at a third layer, below personal experience and below information from people we trust, is (I think in your model) a great many individuals with their own perspectives; maybe I’d call these people non-editors or non-experts, but they potentially have insight into something I’m interested. A potential weakness, of course, is whether I can trust them or not, especially given that (unlike with traditional news sources) there’s little accountability on the part of someone I might follow on Twitter. Also, while many of these freelancers might have insights comparable to those of a professional editor, they probably don’t have the editor’s skills of articulation and organization — meaning you could be left sifting through incomplete or confusing information from an admittedly informed person.
    Finally, the fourth level of the pyramid is raw information – the millions of events, transactions, comments, etc., which Google or other crawlers help us skim, based on key terminology. This level has strengths of breadth and technical comprehensivity; but the element of trust is weak to nonexistent, given that Google isn’t making any qualitative judgements or comparing comments made to day with ones made yesterday or outcomes tomorrow.
    As you can surmise by now, I think I’m big into the idea of trust. Yes, I’d like my news to be complete and well-rounded, but as long as I can’t absorb and filter all the information in the world by myself, I’ve got to rely on people (including professional editors) that I trust.
    Regards.

    • Mike, Excellent and valid points.

      While I didn’t say much about Facebook above, Facebook might provide greater trust (but possibly not accuracy), given that contacts/friends there tend to be more well known than, say, Twitter.

      Furthermore, the crowdsourcing element of social media – through wiki style edits (like Wikipedia), or discussions in comments, such as here – allows (but doesn’t ensure) some further confidence that accuracy and transparency can be enhanced.

      In any case, a healthy scepticism is probably good to have on all content, whether from a more official source (BBC, CNN, Fox news, etc…), or something less ‘official’, like a blog post. There is perhaps a danger also that as news flows past us at a terrific rate, we are subconsciously absorbing some of it without the desired objective challenge.

  3. […] It seems to me, through tweets and retweets by other people who are clearly also passionate on these topics, one is introduced to sources of discussion which one would otherwise likely not have found – ultimately, the true power of Twitter as a news/media tool. […]

  4. […] Quora – people do not generally group themselves by their existing social circles, but rather by their interests (the questions that they follow); people might start by following friends, but sooner or later it’s just the questions themselves, or people who they see posting good questions or answers that they follow (see also ‘The new ‘news’, and how you find it‘) […]

  5. […] I first wrote about Quora a while back, when I first came across it: “The new ‘news’, and how you find it“ […]

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