Newspapers vs. Blogs in an Information Diet

I recently read Clay Johnson‘s book Information Diet and it’s changing the way I think about my consumption, production and sharing of media. I’m still trying to figure out what’s best for me as a media professional. How can I have a healthy media intake and remain gainfully employed? I need to keep up with what others are writing on my beats, what’s going on the tech industry as a whole and in the world in general. I also need to keep up with what’s going on in the journalism profession. Plus I have other interests I like to follow. All the while I need to avoid filter bubbles and expose myself to serendipity for the chance to make new connections and find new angles on beats.

As I try to work it all out, I enjoy reading about other writers’ media diets. Earlier this month Warren Ellis wrote that he reads about 100 blogs on various subjects, and indirectly addressed the issue of filter bubbles and serendipity.

“I read a newspaper every day, and I watch a well-produced, intelligent news analysis programme every night, and I have been known to leave 24-hour news running in a video window all day, and that still doesn’t give me a world picture in the way that my blog capture does,” Ellis writes. “The only way to find interesting things to talk about is to be open to the world as possible, and tune your machinery to bring as much of it to you as possible, without getting to the point where you’re getting no time to process it.”

I found that to be an interesting counter perspective to the notion that we get less, not more, variety from blogs than we get from a daily paper – the idea that, as expressed by Cass Sunstein, newspapers provide a better architecture for seredipity. Abe Burmeister called the suburbanization of information:

Physical newspapers play a similar mixing role, especially those that strive towards mass market audience. The more people they try to attract, the broader the mix of news stories. Turning the pages and sorting the sections is a constant reinforcement of the diversity of information in the world. We may ignore large chunks of it, but somewhere inside we know that other people actually do care about the sports section, science section, international affairs or the local stories.

As more and more people go online for news, we are losing site of the mix. News aggregators, blogs, email alerts and customizable websites give us a tremendous ability to focus our information. We surround ourselves with the news that we want to hear/see/feel. We can zip around in snug little information cocoons, isolated from the harsh reality of different ways of thinking. Those nasty conflicting viewpoints are relegated to trashbin of somebody else’s RSS feed.

William Gibson told Richard Metzger that Twitter is the greatest aggregator of novelty and that following the right 70 people is like a shopping bag full of imported magazines. Of course 70 is a really small number of people to follow on Twitter (and Gibson is now following over 100 as of this writing). And as Ellis points out, 100 blogs isn’t an astronomical number compared to some media junkies intake. Personally, I rely mostly on Twitter now for information aggregation and don’t use an RSS reader much anymore. I follow 402 people or publications on Twitter (down from about 600 before I read Information Diet). I’m trying to cut that number down further, hopefully to 200.

Of course Ellis and Gibson are professional writers of fiction, not journalists on a particular beat or citizens just trying to stay informed. I’m sure Ellis, and possibly Gibson as well, is also very consciously choosing people and publications to follow to avoid filter bubble and ensure some measure of serendipity.

I’ve often wanted some sort of “seredipity engine” that could show me random posts from a large pool of blogs – not too much stuff, just a small water fountain split off from a firehose, not filtered by what other people I follow read, not what’s popular with the world in general, and not sorted by what some algorithm thinks I want to read – just a nearly random list of articles outside my usual bubble. (I say nearly random because I would want it somewhat controlled to reduce the number of articles on the same topic, and to keep publications that publish multiple times a day to flood out publications on a less hectic schedule.)

6 Comments

  1. Metafilter is a superb seredipity engine.

    Other people plus food and drink are the best seredipity engine.

  2. I am decidedly more aligned with Ellis’s view (and methodology), and in a lot of ways I think the folks decrying the loss of the newspaper for serendipitous discovery are imparting newspapers with a quality that simply wasn’t there. (Or rather, it may have been there at one point, but with media consolidation, corporate oversight and directed narratives, it is most certainly not present now or in the last two decades.) There is a perception of discovery, but in reality, you are still just being exposed to a curated, targeted range of news.

    The issue with getting a genuine sense of serendipity and discovery going via blogs and RSS feeds is that it’s more work — not necessarily in terms of time, but in terms of cognitive energy. You have to make the intellectual investment to click the one-off link mentioned casually in a blog post, to navigate to somewhere new. This is largely anti-thetical to the notion of RSS, were the whole point is getting into a “push” mode of consumption (the information comes to you when something new is published, so you don’t waste time navigating to sites to discover if something is new, allowing you to cover more information sources than a “pull” mode of consumption), but frankly discovery of any type requires some investment. Otherwise, your eyes glaze over and you don’t click the link, or shuffle past that section in the newspaper, or change the channel.

    I’ll admit that I’m in a different situation than you, in that I’m not working as a journalist, and thus am less invested in what others on my beat are saying, but: I find personal blogs and side projects significantly more worthwhile than most of the news sites out there, because so often (in particular in tech news), all of the articles effectively got fed the same spiel from the companies, read the same documents, got the same press releases. While they may have different takes on a topic, reading each of the articles feels like a waste of time. What I’d love to see is a system similar to how Google News aggregates related news stories, so that it bubbles one or two articles to the top, and then informs you that there are another 44 sources talking about that topic. If there are only one or two articles about that topic, then those are obviously going to be visible. Applying a similar algorithm to RSS would enable you to have a tremendous amount of information streams, without feeling like you’re gorging yourself too much.

  3. I force myself to read the 3d story in each category in my BBC iphone app. I won’t discover anything too radical but I do force myself to read some stories (like the Greek debt stuff) that I wouldn’t have before.

    I’ll give MetaFilter a try

  4. One way would be to occasionally go to wordpress.com’s home page and browse through what’s on the front page. I’ve found a few blogs that way, one at a time, that I’ve added to my daily consumption. Some on topics (food, or the (‘classical’) arts, for example) that I wouldn’t have bothered tracking down otherwise. In some ways it’s more about finding the right writer than the right topic.

  5. Gibson and Ellis both writefiction, but both of their styles depend on massive knowledge of what’s going on in the world – Transmetropolitan is very obviously the work of someone with their thumb on the pulse of _everything_, and Gibson is explicitly of the theory that technology shapes history – so if you’re writing near-future novels, you need to know what’s coming down the line.

  6. Newspapers can give a greater overview, but, as noted, if you discard sections without reading them (as I tend to with sports), that diversity is lost. Of course, newspapers maintain certain editorial biases which vary from one paper to another. Reading a single paper may give a wider spread of available information, but reading multiple newspapers you diversify further.

    I subscribe to 215 RSS feeds and tend to follow +/- 250 people on Twitter. I consciously focus what I’m following to be relevant to my field of interest. I also subscribe to half a dozen general interest magazines (The Walrus, Geist, etc.) and literary journals which frequently offer in-depth analyses on a variety of subjects. Not to mention actual books…

    I don’t know how one can stay on top of everything. Don’t we kind of, you know, have to focus our time and attention on what we deem relevant? It seems impossible today to be a Renaissance wo/man today. There’s just too much.

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