How do people deal with the torrent of information that rains down on us all? What's the secret to staying on top of the news without surrendering to the chaos of it? In this series, we ask people who seem well-informed to describe their media diets. This is from a conversation with Christopher Hayes, Washington D.C. editor for The Nation.
First thing in the morning, I check my Twitter feed using Brizzly. Increasingly, Twitter has become the spine of my media diet--well, that's a mixed metaphor, so let's say, the chief waiter for my meal. The genius of Twitter (and there are bad things of course; the acceleration of the news cycle can be troublesome) is the way it allows you to filter information. My RSS reader changed my life, but it's a mechanical algorithm with no human judgement. Twitter is screened by humans. The original insight that made Google so unique was its way of coding human judgement into its search algorithm. In determining what to focus on, you want to capture as much human wisdom as possible.
I'm a real podcast addict. From the moment I wake up until I go to bed, it's a constant thrum of media. While I'm biking to work, I listen to podcasts along the way, which probably isn't the safest thing to do. I usually listen to On The Media, This American Life, Fresh Air, and this wonderful quirky podcast from Seattle called Too Beautiful To Live, which is hosted by Luke Burbank, a former co-host of Alison Stewart's at NPR's now defunct Bryant Park Project.
My daily routine probably seems boring because it's so routinized. I virtually never surf the Web at all. It's extremely rare that I go to a website. Everything is through my RSS reader (which has probably 200 to 250 feeds). The one website I will browse around is the New York Times, even though I have their feeds in my reader. I don't digest newspapers as papers, just as discrete flows of information. I've made a set of decisions about what is going to flow towards me and I kinda just deal with that throughout the day as opposed to going out into the Web and deciding what to read.
At the office we get Mother Jones, Harpers, The Atlantic, The American Prospect and National Journal. I have a CongressDaily account. The Hill is usually in the lobby, and I'll read it occasionally when Congress is in session. I used to have a lot of physical magazines, but in pursuing my book I tried to pare a little bit back.
During the day, I'm constantly G-chatting [Gmail chat], checking Twitter, checking email, and reloading my RSS. The totality of these things in a constant cycle is how I move through the day. I don't use many news apps, but I really like the New York Times app for the iPhone. If I'm getting coffee or have a few seconds free I'll check and read. It's niftily designed.
My regular reading habits tend to fluctuate based on whatever topic my attention is focus on. During health care I was reading Igor Volsky at Think Progress, Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic, Jon Walker at FireDogLoake and Ezra Klein; I read Ezra religiously. During the health care reform and financial regulatory reform debates there were a few bloggers I would read, like Naked Capitalism or Rortybomb. I also read the Financial Times very regularly. I focus topically. When I'm working on a topic, I'll find blogs and add them to my reader, but it's rare that I end up deleting any of them. They sort of accrue over time. When Yemen was the big issue for a few weeks, I added the two or three blogs that focus almost entirely on Yemen. I'm sort of like a hoarder who will never throw anything out in their house, which, again, is sort of why Twitter is really useful in curating the information coming towards me.
I'm working on a book right now, so now that I've discovered this firehose of media information flowing at me, I actually need to find software to interrupt that. A grad student told me about a life-changing piece of freeware at a wedding called Freedom. Basically, it will shut off your Internet connection for a number of minutes you specify. I usually wake up, I read my RSS inbox, and then I turn on Freedom for two hours and attempt to go through some books for stuff I'm working on for my book, write 1000 words, do some concentrated thinking, or try to craft some prose. I disagree with Nick Carr's book in some parts, but it seems undeniable that the Internet is having bad effects on our concentration. One of the interesting things about writing a book is trying to read through academic books that aren't that gripping, like Weber (who is a great writer, but it's not Moneyball). Forcing myself to read through a long, somewhat dense book is exercising such an atrophied muscle in my brain.
For fun, I turn to sports. I will watch MSNBC programming, but usually just the next day, when I'll watch it online. Having been buried in politics all day, I just want to watch sports and engage in braindeath. The last thing I read before bed is usually The New Yorker on my bedside table, along with my own magazine. Those are the two magazines I'll usually read in their physical form.
With Twitter I've made an active decision to have a diverse twitter stream . I try to make it diverse racially and gender wise and ideologically. An example: when the jury verdict came down on Johannes Mehserle in the killing of Oscar Grant, I was subbing for Rachel Maddow that day and I'd kept tabs on it. It was a horrible story, a kid shot point blank range; the officer said he went for his taser but came up with his gun instead. It got a little bit of attention in the national media, but my Twitter stream blew up. The barrage of angst, outrage and frustration that was appearing in my Twitter feed really forced me to say to myself "we should do something on this." I'm proud of that editorial decision. And this was genuinely caused and prompted by my Twitter.