Understanding news consumption and production can be like understanding the air we breathe

A careful, systematic look at the way you encounter news might just dramatically change your understanding of the genre. Here are some observations about creating and consuming news in our current information ecosystem.

Creating News

News is not one size fits all, and news methodology can’t be one size fits all. This is probably a well known fact to people with more of a journalism background, but it is often overlooked by people who are newer to the field. Here are a few points that stem from differences:

– Social media can be a great source for information about breaking events that have a critical base of witnesses with internet access.

– Social media is no substitute for news that has very few witnesses with privileged access to information.

– The core job of newsmakers is to keep the public informed about unfolding events. Oftentimes newsmakers are as invisible to their audiences as the people who develop dictionaries are. The audience assumes that the major events they see covered are the objectively most-major events, often without any understanding of the curation involved. Newsmakers provide a vital public service and have a moral obligation to the public, but that obligation is far from straight forward.

– News consumers may choose to engage most deeply in the topics they are most interested in, but that doesn’t invalidate a basic desire to know what’s going on in the world. This is why I like to advocate for eye tracking as an engagement metric- the current tracking metrics don’t reflect the most basic function of the news media.

 

Consuming News

News exposure is seamlessly integrated into our daily experiences. As a child, I would watch multiple newscasts with my mom, and we would both scan the newspapers regularly. As a new parent, I visited multiple websites to collect news from different perspectives and regularly watched multiple newscasts- this seemed like an essential tie between the small world of new parenthood and the larger world outside my door. But these days I work long hours and rarely catch newscasts or have time to visit multiple news sites. Someone recently asked me which news outlets I follow, and I was surprised that the answer didn’t come very readily to me. I’ve been making a careful effort to observe my contact with news stories, outlets and journalists, and I highly recommend this exercise to anyone interested in understanding or measuring media use.

Here is some of what I’ve observed:

– Twitter is the first platform I think of when I think of news. I think of it as my own curated stream of news amidst the wider raging river of information flow. But when it comes to news stories in particular, I often hear about them not because I seek them out or curate them but because my streams are based on people who have a variety of interests. I hear about emerging news because people go off-topic in  their Twitter streams, not because I seek it out. I often value this dynamic as a kind of filter of its own, because major events enter my stream from a variety of perspectives, but the majority of news does not.

– Re: Interest-based streams- I mostly follow researchers on Twitter. As a result, I can follow conferences as they happen or read interesting articles as they come out. Is this news? What makes it news?

– Platforms morph based on the way people use them. See @clintonyates Twitter feed for an example of a journalist using Twitter to tell resonant stories in a unique way that defies traditional uses of the platform.

– Re: Instagram- I love to follow Instagrammers because I really love photography. Some of the instagrammers I follow are photojournalists. This is an area of news coverage that is rarely considered in depth. And sometimes I wonder whether these pictures are only news if they contain, and I read, captions explaining their context and importance?

– Facebook is often discussed as a news source, but it is very important when discussing Facebook as a news source to consider the social context of information. I will share news from news sources only if I think it is something I can share without harming valued personal relationships with people across many ideological spectra and backgrounds. That said, some of my friends will regularly share the pieces that I choose not to. When I see those articles from these friends I will put the articles in the context of what I’ve seen from those people in the past, my patterns with them in regards on the topic, and my social patterns with them in general.

– It is important to recognize that news items on Facebook can come from news sources, interest groups or pages, interested people, or simply from Facebook. The source interacts with the platform to create the stimulus.

– Re: other fora- There are many more news sources that I follow to varying degrees. I receive research updates and daily briefings from Pew and Nielsen, which I read with varying frequency (the only one I read every day is the Daily Briefing from the Pew Journalism Project.) I also receive e-mails from research and technical lists, lists about STEM education, community lists, blog notifications and emails from LinkedIn. I read the Sunday paper, and weekly updates from my employer, and I regularly hear and participate in discussions in my workplace and outside of it. Each of these are potential news sources that may bring in other news sources.

– These sources listed together may appear to amount to a critical mass of time, but I was not aware of that critical mass until I stopped to observe it. Our choices and actions regarding media consumption are as unconscious as many other choices I make with my time.

All of this is to say that news is as seamlessly integrated into my environment as the air I breathe, and it stems from sources of all kinds. Every story has a different way of intersecting with and co creating my own. Whereas news media has a particularly strong history of top down and one way dissemination, it is much more ubiquitous, multi-directional and part of our ecosystem now than ever before. We are consumers and participants in very different ways, and understanding these is a key to understanding and developing tools for news in the future.

 

* A side note re: pay to read. My advice to news outlets is to find a way to integrate pre-existing online funding resources (like Amazon, paypal, etc.) in a collective or semi-standardized way, so that people don’t have to provide financial information to anyone new, and so that people can pay small fees (e.g. 25 cents for a long-read or something that required a good deal of expense to produce, 5 or ten cents for smaller or shorter pieces) with a single click and pay as they go to read around a variety of sources.

Ruby slippers? The professional skills that parenthood builds

As a parent of older children, I am strongly aware of the ways in which parenthood has affected my career. I’m also aware of the many professional skills that parenthood has reinforced in me. Lately I’ve found myself discussing these skills with other parents, many of whom had always focused more on the drawbacks of parenting than on the advantages it brings to the workplace. These skills can be like our ruby slippers. They are wonderful, and we’ve developed them along the road without ever realizing what we’ve had.

For example:

1. The buck stops here.

There is a moment in (very) early parenthood when you hear your child cry and wonder what someone will do to soothe them. In the next moment you realize that you (more than anyone else on earth) are the one who is supposed to soothe the child. This is a big step in your transformation into parenthood. This sets the stage for you to advocate for your child, defend your child and soothe your child. But it also transforms you as a person, from someone who expects others to do things to someone who expects to do things yourself. The guts with which you advocate for your children should also help you advocate for yourself and your co workers, and the proactive habits you develop can permeate everything you do, both in the home and in the workplace.

2. Efficiency

Wasting time is a big deal for parents. I am happy to waste time on a kayak, at the beach, or hiking with my kids. But I am not willing to redo work that I have already done. This distinction has made me very aware of my time use and organization. Although multiple layers of checks and balances can be great, I don’t want to read the same email twice, shuffle the same piece of paper twice or spend time trying to figure out where I left off with a project- potentially redoing work that I have already done. My time feels precious, and that drives me to be significantly more organized and efficient. It also drives me to think carefully about process and streamline what I can to maximize quality and minimize unintentional duplication.

3. Prioritizing

There is more work to do than you will ever be able to keep up with. You can’t work full time or overtime and pursue professional development, and then come home and keep a perfectly clean and maintained home, cook a full meal, keep up with the laundry, spend time doing homework and teaching extra lessons, attend PTA and school events, take your kids to lessons of all kinds, do bathtime and bedtime rituals, juggle sick kids and dentist appointments, keep up with all of the bills, paperwork and repairs that arise, exercise regularly, keep up with the news and trends, pursue spiritual fulfillment, participate in your community, develop your hobbies and interests, spend time with your extended family, and enjoy leisure time. You will have to prioritize the things that you find most important and necessary. Thinking strategically about your time is also a really great professional skill that will help you to better organize your time and the time of your team.

4. Reconciling differences

The priorities that you have chosen from the list above will evolve over time, and they will be different from the priorities that others choose. Your priorities will differ from other adults’ priorities, and they will differ from your kids priorities (and their priorities will differ, too!). Somehow you will have to reconcile these differences, and “my way or the highway” will only get you so far. At work you will also find that you have different priorities than other people you work with. Managing differences in priorities is a great professional skill to have.

5. Dealing with personal conflicts

One amazing lesson of parenthood is that just when you are ready to turn and run for cover from your child is just about when you need to spend more time together. Find a change of scenery and an activity that you both enjoy, and retreat to it together. Whatever challenge you were stuck on will usually become much easier to pull through after a break. The same trap of pulling away and developing conflicts happens in professional environments. These traps can grow into irreconcilable differences if they are left to fester, but they can often be little more than small bumps in the road if they are caught and acted on early.

6. Gratitude for intellectual challenges

I love parenthood. But as much as I LOVE Boynton and Dr Seuss books, I am also very happy to balance out family time with activities that stretch my mind and make me think. Before I became a parent I took a career for granted. Of course I would always be working! But in the early days of parenthood it sometimes felt like a miracle to walk into the office on time, fully dressed, and rested enough to do my work. I am very fortunate to not only have a job that supports my family, but to have a job that keeps me intellectually stimulated and interested. I am interested in research methodology, and I am extremely grateful to be able to pursue that interest. For someone who had labeled solo trips to the grocery time “me time” for years, graduate school felt almost like a really great book club. It was an excuse to read great books, write interesting papers and have regular discussions with adults who shared some of the same interests. A career is not just a responsibility; it is a privilege.

7. Explanations, explanations and more explanations

I spent a few nights while I was in graduate school reading academic articles to my family and explaining why they were so cool and interesting. I also practice talks with my family, taking detours to make sure they understand what I’m saying. Being able to communicate about your work with any audience is a real gift. Not only does it help you develop a great understanding of your work, it helps prepare you to interact with a wide variety of people.

 
There are many more topics along these lines that I could cover, and maybe I will cover them another day. But for now I hope you’ve taken some inspiration from the advantages that parenthood brings to a career. Parenting can make you more focused, more proactive, better able to deal with an array of people, and more grateful for work and the challenges it brings. It brings challenges, but it also fortifies you.