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How do you consume media?

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Reading Chris Hayes talk about his media diet is a good excuse to spend some time talking about my own. I'm dissatisfied with it.

Like a lot of people I know, I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter. But unlike a lot of the people I know, I don't find it useful or informative. I rarely find great articles or thoughts linked. The conversation is biased toward whatever is dominating cable news at that moment, which isn't really what I write about. But I do find it fun. And I consider tweeting regularly to be part of my job. So on Twitter, I'm generally looking for things to tweet. Which is fine, but I'm spending too much time on it. The thing is, it's like an instant-pleasure button. There's always something new to read. Always a quick distraction.

But if I'm attracted to Twitter, I'm reliant on RSS feeds. Full RSS feeds, to be more specific. My information consumption is overwhelmingly biased toward outlets I can read fully in Google Reader. That cuts out a few blogs I'd like to read more of, but not that many. What it does do is bias me in favor of blogs and against newspaper articles, magazines and so forth. Wonkbook was in part an effort to bring this into better balance, but it hasn't changed my day as much as I'd hoped.

Adding to the problem is that reading blogs is better for blogging. It's easier to write something small by reading something small. Longer magazine articles have a lot more texture and information, but they're much harder to blog. For instance: I know exactly how to write about this Mark Kleiman post on prison reform. It makes one point, and I can write about that point. Graeme Woods's fantastic Atlantic article on how advances in monitoring technology and GPS systems could obviate the need for prisons (or at least many prisons) is harder to blog about.

But you lose a lot in this trade-off: Blogs make for quick reading, but -- with some exceptions -- less deep understanding. But they're easier to read, and updated constantly, and so it's almost always easier to scroll through some blogs then pick up a book. That's particularly true during the workday, when I need to find grist for my next post now.

Oh, and books. Deciding which book to read at any given moment is fairly stressful, I find. You're talking about a large time commitment, so reading one thing means not reading another. And the choices are hard -- not just in which book, but which type of book. On the one hand, I want to read books on the issues I know well, as that's how I stay up-to-date on my topics. On the other hand, I learn a lot less from those books, as almost every page is stuff I've already read. Comparatively, reading books about things I hardly know teaches me a lot, but it doesn't necessarily teach me things that are useful in my work.

To some degree, the same goes for blogs. I came across Kathleen Fasanella's Fashion Incubator while researching a column on the fashion copyright bill (more on that later). I love it. It's a deep look into an industry I really don't know much about. I want to know about every blog that's like it. But can I justify reading it rather than reading more commentary on quantitative easing?

And let's not even get into how often I uselessly click over to Gmail while doing other things. My mental commentary is almost goldfishlike: "Hey look: an e-mail! Hey look: an e-mail! Hey look: an e-mai..." We're also not going to talk about how many more calls I should be making every day.

So I guess I'd separate my media problems into two buckets: how to manage distractions, and how to make choices. In my experience, people have intricate and interesting media habits they've developed to optimize their information consumption and help with these problems. I'd like to hear yours.

Photo credit: SparkCBC/Flick/CC.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 20, 2010; 11:25 AM ET
 
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Comments

looks like someone hacked Yglesias -- links take me to the Google page

Posted by: bdballard | August 20, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

For books, I find Tyler Cowen's approach works well: start reading a lot of different books but abandon them instantly if they turn out to be bad or (more often) to deliver most of their value in the introduction. Kindle will let you download the first chapter of most books for free, which helps, as does a good library.

Partly I think you touch on a fundamental flaw in blogging. I'd be better off if I spent much less time reading blogs, and commenting on them :-).

Finally, I think most professionals should divide their career into 4-7 year phases to avoid getting stale. While your rapid rise in the profession may mask the problem to a certain extent, at some point you're going to need to stop doing what you're doing now if you want to continue making a contribution. I suspect the closer you get to the top of the pyramid, the trickier the tradeoffs between status and genuine accomplishment will become.

Posted by: DaffyDuck2 | August 20, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Agree with you completely on this issue. My tray feels pretty full every time I go online. For news it's nytimes, economist, atlantic, slate, WSJ, CNN, & usually daily. For blogs: Wonkbook (of course), PK, 538, & I'm trying out Weigel. Dozens of others involving photography & design art (thisisnthappiness), comics (qwantz, hark), or about.com newsletters (french, physics, biology, etc).

The priority for me is to feel satisfied with what I want to learn about. If it's crowding my plate, is it essential to my meal? Is it a helping of home fries, or is it just the chives to go on top? I've decided also that I can spend no more than two hours a day on news & blogs. This doesn't include time for books, because they get their own 1-2 hours a day - I'll suffer lack of sleep for a good book.

I think Daffy above has the right, simple idea: read something as long as you feel like reading it. This applies to news, blogs, books, whatever. I've pared down wsj & cnn reading because it's not adding new content to my plate. I've stopped reading numerous blogs because they aren't as poignant or focused to my interests as the others I read. & I stopped reading Mason & Dixon at page 502 because I was no longer looking forward to reading it. Since then I've read five books in four weeks. I'll come back to it because I want to, but as you said, there are simply too many books I want to read.

Great post for commiserating value!

Posted by: torofresco | August 20, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I check out the Post and the NYT websites over breakfast, and read political and cultural blogs at lunch - I've got a list of bookmarks for those, including this site, Yglesias, DCist, Greater Greater Washington, Ta-Nehisi Cotes, and Alyssa Rosenberg. (I don't read all of them every day, but usually manage once or twice a week.)

I used an RSS reader for a long time, but it got to be such a deluge that I stopped. I just started a new one from scratch, and am trying to be more selective about how many blogs I add to it.

I rely on the Above the Fold daily email from Environmental Health News for environmental and other public health stuff - they post a sentence a link to various news stories out that morning.
I usually check the ScienceBlogs Last 24 Hours page a few times a week, too.

I just started on Twitter, and I'm ambivalent about it. It's a quicker read than an RSS feed, but some of the people I follow put out dozens of tweets a day. I've decided that if I don't check it for a day or two in a row, I shouldn't try to go back and read what I've missed.

Posted by: Liz_B | August 20, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Maybe try compartmentalizing your time. Read emails at three specified times per day (early am, midday, evening). In almost all cases, someone can wait 4 or 5 hours for a response.

Blogging is your job, so you need to read blogs, as well as longer pieces that inform your writing. Again, it may be possible to set aside, say, two times per day for blog checking, and an hour or two for longer reading.

As for what else to read? Pick up a nice long novel by an author you always wanted to read and never got around to or a book on a period of history you've wanted to know more about. Something totally unrelated to work. Curl up in a chair or in bed and consider the time spent pure pleasure (if you've picked the right book). Then fall asleep like a baby and start all over again with the emails and blogs.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | August 20, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I have used a mac App called "Concentrate" a bit. Free trial: http://getconcentrating.com/

I use this to work in chunks, using something roughly like the Pomodoro technique. http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/ It's nice because I end up with a good log of everything I complete in a day, and I get a 5 minute break every time I get something done to go and make blog comments or whatever and give my brain a break.

It's good to time your work periods AND your break time!

Posted by: staticvars | August 20, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

I guess I've finally crossed that magical generational threshold, but really I cannot understand the attraction to Twitter. Facebook makes sense to me, but Twitter? Twitter is like blogs dumbed-down, and blogs are dumbed-down newspapers, and newspapers are dumbed-down books. And books are a dumbed-down reality.

Posted by: nickthap | August 20, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Love this point. I think Ezra is me in his consumption of media. By in large twitter is useless minus a few people worth following or with breaking news the search function is very helpful.

RSS feeds are the greatest thing ever. I have over 100. without them the blogosphere would be garbage.

Re: checking email, facebook, twitter. I've read studies about this. All play to our brains and how we love instant attention and gratification. The feeling of receiving an email gives us instant joy and we want to experience it over and over again like a drug. But, it leads to no long term happiness.

Facebook and twitter play to our desire to make ourselves heard in a "loud" world. When you tweet or post a status you feel good about yourself. Like the world has heard your voice and cares what you think are are doing despite that not being the case. When someone responds or "likes" your comment it verifies in our minds that people care what we have to say.


Posted by: fiorehoffmann | August 20, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

People live longer, so extending the retirement age is reasonable. Increase the contributions as needed to account for the longer lifespan is also, of course, reasonable.

Increase contributions to make up for budget shortfalls because some idiots want to cut taxes? Absolutely not! Primarily because I think taxes should be raised. Secondarily because those who want to cut taxes claim that tax cuts pay for themselves.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | August 20, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

The way Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish handles long form blogging is to write an article and then over the course of a week or several weeks, to post continuations of the post. One of the longest was the "Cannabis Closet" post followed by what seemed like months of "Cannabis Closet, Ctd" posts. He can explore many facets of the same issue this way. Most of the continuations deal with user input, but maybe it could be personal content.

Posted by: daniellstevens | August 20, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Step 1: Get off Twitter.

Step 2: You're now fixed, enjoy.

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | August 20, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

I use Google's home page /ig with GReader. Most headlines are dumped into a mass feed read I can scroll through quickly and expand if they look interesting. Articles I want to read get opened into separate tabs one by one until the feed is finished. Then I go through each tab one by one.

Informative websites get their own separate feed on the home page. For instance, in spite of Consumer Reports' horribly designed website, they have a really good feed service. They get their own feed box on the home page.

Twitter is underwhelming, I subscribe to almost no-one but I usually post informative links that are outside the mainstream news cycle.

Google's home page in conjunction with GReader makes for effective filtering of the fire hydrant.

Posted by: fakedude1 | August 20, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Instapaper! www.instapaper.com

There - I just tripled the number of long magazine articles you will read henceforth. Especially if you have an iOS device or two.

Plus, it's got a great API and lots of really great programs (Nambu for Twitter, NetNewsWire for RSS, just to name two) can send articles to it directly from your RSS stream.

Posted by: KyleDeas | August 20, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I haven't found Twitter all that engaging, with the exception of following some of my favorite stand-ups. Not good for news.

People always say that reading blogs to the exclusion of newspapers is bad, but this overlooks that the source for most blog posts are newspaper articles. So even though I read mostly blogs, they usually flag the good articles from the major papers. Supplement that with feeds from my favorite reporters and its not all that difficult to keep up with them.

My RSS has about 60 feeds, with a solid core of about 15-20 permanent feeds. The rest I cycle through quite a bit. If my feed starts topping 300+ unread I just mark as read all items older than a week. By learning to become ruthless, I have overcome RSS deluge.

NPR in the car, occasional episode of Newshour and The American Prospect in print. Many books going at once, ala the Cowen method. I need to read more fiction though.

Posted by: MattMilholland | August 20, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

A minority of the people I follow on twitter make for valuable daily reading. The problem is the feed as a whole, which is partly a social problem (following people who follow me) and partly one of curation.

The bigger issue here IMHO is that Ezra Klein the hardworking professional who wants to waste less time online is also "Ezra Klein" the writer/brand who's salary is paid by our collective wasting time online. Now, I've been reading Ezra since he was on Tapped and I value what he's taught me, but most of it has come from a minority of his work, and overall the sheer amount of time I've spent on his feed could have been spent better. We have sort of an inverted physician-heal-thyself situation here: Ezra, keep trying experiments like Wonkbook that seek improvements in public knowledge gathering and dispersal.

Posted by: DaffyDuck2 | August 20, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

The point at which one realizes the difference between "how to manage distractions, and how to make choices" seems significant.

Whats the difference between a 1993 Harry Reid advocating statutory reform of the 14th Amendment and a 2010 South Carolina Senator advocating reform of the 14th Amendment via Amendment?

Posted by: rmgregory | August 20, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

I have one g-mail account for your blog, Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Steve Benen. I read other news/political sites via bookmarks, but mostly I limit myself to the NYT and WaPo. The reason I have a separate g-mail account for this RSS feed is so I can look at it on my blackberry.

I have another, more personal g-mail account, with the other 92 blogs I follow. These are about jewelry making and marketing, color, design, food, and a few little entertaining catch-alls.

I read the 4 blogs listed above, the other 92 I view, read what catches my interest and move on.

I can't stand twitter- it is... insipid. I wanted to equate twitter with the same proud ignorance which enables Sarah Palin, to prosper, but the exact tart phraseology escapes me.

Posted by: punchaxverulam | August 20, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

For Twitter, I find third-party applications better at sifting through the morass of information the service offers. Probably the best app for that is 'Flipbook' on the iPad, presenting the content from Twitter in a much more pleasing and readable format. There are more apps for Twitter, but sifting through info on Twitter is not so easy, even with lists and search.

I find myself refreshing my RSS feeds every few months, because I find myself not always reading a percentage of the feeds I subscribe to on a regular basis. If I haven't read a feed in a while, I delete it, and if it's so important to me, I always manage to gravitate back to it if it posts something of interest and importance, as many blogs quote other blogs in their articles with link backs. Of course, there are the core blogs that I read all the time and can't make my day without reading what they have to say, they always stay in my RSS feeds. But I find the larger my RSS feed list grows, the more difficult it is for me to wade through all the headlines for the day.

And books are too important not to read. But I too find myself in a quandary when picking a book to read. And too often when in the middle of that book I find myself already wanting to start the next book. This may perhaps be due to being used to reading shorter blog entries and contributing to a shorter attention span.

Posted by: iggyviola | August 20, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: gaffney21 | August 21, 2010 5:56 AM | Report abuse

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