Why you should consciously read fewer newspapers ... and what to do instead.
Monday, January 23, 2012 at 10:48PM
Ron Tarro in Managing Information, Social Media, Tools

<<Update: Since writing this post Google announced that the Google Reader product will be end of life. Such is the Google world of "free" advertising-based software. There are no niche's at Google. It's the globe or nothing. I have moved to a product called "NewsBlur" which actually, upon spending time witih it, is signficantly better than Google Reader. Newsblur also has an iPad and an iPhone app. But there are many other products out there which are not Google dependent. Check out Feedly and Flipboard (both are stylistically visually nice but I find them too inefficient when you have larger numbers of feeds).  Bottom line: Newsblur for me. Feedly on the side for just a couple things.>>

During a presentation to Florida Atlantic University's executive MBA program late last year, I was asked by a student to share the newspapers to which I subscribed as a small company CEO. My answer was "none". I've not subscribed to those papers for many years. There was a substantial number of surprised MBA candidates who argued that their Wall Street Journal and New York Times subscriptions mattered. So I will elaborate.

I occasionally enjoy generalized publications but I would suggest that these publications have a low return on intellectual investment for the amount of time invested. I make this statement specifically for professional people who seek a certain degree of specialization in the information they seek. Generalized publications, by their commercial model, write to the broadest possible audience. These publications are NOT rewarded for pursuing niche, specialized, and detailed information (like my interest in telecommunications software). My role as CEO requires insight (foresight?) into my little corners of the world. As such, these general news outlets are an inefficient (and actually merely a random) source of useful information. You could probably end my argument with this first point. But there is more. I find that specialized information, when it does appear, is filtered, homogenized, and recast within contexts and narratives of limited relevance to me. Newspapers and journalists, by their nature, are aggregators and contextualizers of information. However their contextualizing is directed to a target audience which is typically not the "specialist me". Said differently, they can report on an event but mis-characterize its implications. Further, journalists, in packaging their work, insulate me from their information sources and the subject matter experts from which their work is derived. I would rather have a more direct access to these information sources and specialists.

So how do I monitor the world around me? The short answer is that I've created my own newspaper using Google Reader and the RSS feeds provided by various websites. Further I've installed Google-compatible RSS feed reader clients on my iPad, iPhone, and Windows PC's, such that my "newspaper" is available on-demand anywhere. RSS is not new. For those of you unfamiliar with it, RSS feeds can be found by clicking the little "radio sign" that you see on websites while other sites may just say "Feeds". Feeds simply allow you to "subscribe" on your own terms to items published on that website site.

Here's some advice if you are motivated about constructing your own personnally curated newspaper. First here's my objective in aggregating collections of RSS Feeds: I seek to increase the density, quality, and timeliness of relevant information on subjects to which I have access. Said differently, I want to spend less time looking at more insightful information and analysis. Getting to this objective is really all about your selection of RSS feeds and sources. Here's how I do it. In what is my order of priority.

  1. First, I cut out the aggregators. I don't subscribe to the RSS Feeds from the New York Times or Wall Street Journal unless they provide feeds that are narrowly targeted to subject matter (if for example they have a feed just for the telecommunications industry). Subscribing to these mega feeds does not move me toward my goals of focused insight. Further, an over reliance on these mainstream feeds introduces a bias of topical omission.
  2. Second, I focus first on subscribing to independent bloggers. Bloggers are citizen journalists. The blog world has evolved to where I can find these "citizen journalists" for virtually any technical or non-technical topic. Software design? Software development methodology? Telecommunications regulations? Venture capital? The United States has a "deep bench" of talent (to use an old sports metaphor). Access to that talent has traditionally been through the filter of mass media. Now you can go directly to their insight by subscribing to their blogs. I spend considerable time looking for "smart" bloggers.
  3. Third, I focus on professional writers and journalists. I go to the blogs of writers and journalists operating in my industry and interest areas. I scan specialized books, journals, and publications (and sometimes subscribe to the publication's feed). I find the "columnists" that seem sensible and insightful. I then subscribe to their blog feeds.
  4. Fourth, I go to Google Alerts and I setup customized Google Searches for things that I'm tracking (typically a person, a company, or a product). Google Alerts is a service that triggers hourly/daily Google search for you and then delivers the results into your RSS Feed. This last item has the risk of generating to many entries so you need to really narrow the search down.

There is a theme to the above priorities. I subscribe to the RSS Feeds of PEOPLE BEFORE ORGANIZATIONS. I look for smart people with knowledge, passion, focus, depth, and insight about something interesting 

There is a reasonable argument that the highly social Twitter could represent the replacement platform for RSS feed aggregators (and that I'm therefore a social media dinosaur). I spend time on Twitter . But in my case, the core Google Reader and RSS still seem more efficient in delivering full form reads in my niches and quirky interests.  Also, there's lots of chat about crowd source methods for filtering or prioritizing news of the world. But that again is always about someone else (or the "crowd") filtering for you. I WANT TO BE MY OWN CURATOR. Or at minimum I want to aggregate many curators to develop my own picture of the world. I'm therefore an advocate for any software platforms that give me broad access to people and long form access to what they have to say.

Finally, here's an interesting point of consideration beyond my original motivation of time and control. I find that if an "important" industry topic emerges across the published media, that I will have picked up on days (if not weeks) ahead of mainstream publications. You get the distinct impression over time that you and mainstream journalists share similar sources. But even if I don't pick up on it, when news does emerge, I have a range of thoughts (narratives) about it immediately.

Update on Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 11:48PM by Registered CommenterRon Tarro

Read more on RSS here.  Again, just in case you're still pondering this issue. RSS changes your web surfing dynamic several ways.  

1. First, by not requiring you to visit large numbers of web sites to find the news and to instead have web pages stream their published work toward you for review in an consolidated way on a single display.

2. Second, it shifts subscription control to you.  Traditionally you would subscribe to content on the internet by providing an e-mail address.  Providing your e-mail leaves the information publisher in control of the subscription.  You control the on/off switch for an RSS feed (not the holder of your e-mail address).

3. Third, it eliminates a big chunk of content management effort for you.  You must personally delete each e-mail arriving in your inbox while in an RSS Feed aggregator, old content just falls below the fold and disappears.

Article originally appeared on The SalientVoice Journal (http://www.salientvoice.com/).
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