My media diet; or, how to build the ultimate personalized information consumption system for yourself

One of my goals this year was to be more intentional about the information that I consume on a daily basis, inspired partly by Clay Johnson‘s book The Information Diet and partly by a desire to create the ultimate lean, flexible news-gathering system to replace my hitherto haphazard efforts to inform myself about the world. It’s the end of 2012 now, and I can honestly say that I’m much better informed about what’s going on in the world around me than I’ve ever been before–the purpose of this post is to open-source my 2012 methodology for anyone who’s interested in borrowing from it or improving on it.

*Note: if you’re more in the market for a media diet lite, I highly recommend Zite–click here to skip directly to that section.

MY WORKFLOW:

My basic workflow for every piece of content I interact with on a daily basis, from the New York Times to Twitter to an email newsletter, is as follows:

1. I scan it quickly
2. If I’m interested, I click through to gauge its length
3. Based on length, I do one of three things:

  • Read it immediately, if doing so would only take me a minute or two
  • Save it to Instapaper to read the next day on my Kindle, if I think it would take more than a minute or two to read
  • Send it straight to my Kindle as a standalone document, if I think it would take me more than 10 minutes to read

4. I sit down and take my time to read and enjoy anything that makes it through to my Kindle, and I only do so when I have time to relax and enjoy reading for the sake of reading.

I spend anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour in the morning reading the Seattle Times and the New York Times on my iPad and looking through Facebook, my RSS feeds, and my email newsletters; I check Facebook and my work-related Twitter lists and RSS folders on my way to work and back and during the quick little interstitial portions of my day when I’m walking from one meeting to the next, in the elevator, etc; and I do my Instapaper reading at lunch and after work, along with catching up on anything from my high-priority queues that I missed during the day. There are two big things that I get from my workflow as it’s evolved over the course of the year: I’m able to skim a lot of carefully curated information, so even if I don’t read every article I still get a good sense of what’s happening in the areas I care about; and I also end up at the end of the day with a finished product that represents the items that are worth my taking the time to sit down and really enjoy.

MY PHYSICAL TOOLS (5):

1. Personal and work computers (both PC’s):
These are both relevant to my media diet primarily in that I use them to process articles that I receive via email. It’s worth noting, though, that I use the same Instapaper bookmarklets in all of my browsers, so my workflow for saving an article is the same whether I’m on my phone, my iPad, or either of the computers that I use.

2. iPad 2:
The iPad is by far the best way I’ve found to consume rich digital content–the larger iPad form factor is nice, but if I were buying a new tablet today I’d get an iPad Mini in a heartbeat. I tend to leave my iPad at home during the day because I identify it with relaxation.

3. iPhone 4S:
Because it’s always with me, this is my main way to process my feeds when I’m not at home. I find that I can generally keep up on Twitter and Facebook both over the course of the day just by scanning them on my phone when I’m in the elevator, walking between meetings, walking or busing back and forth from work, etc.

5. A basic, $69 Kindle:
This is by far the best way I’ve found to consume plain-text, unformatted content; when paired with Instapaper it really comes into its own. There are two Instapaper features that are vital to my system: Save to Kindle and Send to Kindle.

MY DIGITAL TOOLS (9):

1. The Seattle Times print replica iPad app:
The Seattle Times is by far the best source of local information about Seattle, and it’s highly relevant to my work for me to know what’s being covered in it and how. The print replica requires a paid subscription, but I love being able to get the full newspaper experience on my iPad every morning when I wake up, and I’m happy to support high-quality local journalism.

2. The New York Times iPad app:
I don’t have to sell you on the value of the New York Times; their iPad app is fantastic, aside from the fact that it doesn’t play well with Instapaper.

3. Lists in Twitter and Facebook and folders in Google Reader:
All of the tools that are my bread and butter today used to be totally overwhelming to me, to the point that I was either checking them randomly but still missing most of the content I really cared about (Twitter, Google Reader) or checking them occasionally but then ending up in an endless productivity black hole (Facebook) and, again, still missing most of the content that I cared about. What finally allowed me to solve my problem was subdividing and prioritizing different streams within each source–lists on Twitter and Facebook, and folders in Google Reader.

Twitter lists are most likely going to be subsets of your overall follower list, but part of their beauty is that you don’t have to follow an account to include it in a list. It’s difficult to add and remove people from mobile devices (I recommend TweetList, FWIW), but aside from that they’re pretty easy to figure out. Even if you never send a tweet in your life, I highly recommend using Twitter–it’s the most powerful and flexible tool for content curators that exists today, and there’s a whole army of people out there working around the clock to find good content and share it with anyone who’s interested. Finding the right people to follow is the trick–how often someone tweets, what they tweet about, and whether there’s another way to get the same content (e.g., do they cross-post everything they send to Twitter to Facebook also? Is there an RSS feed that gives you the same information that’s being posted to Twitter?) are the most important things to look at.

If you’re not familiar with RSS, it stands for Really Simple Syndication, and if there are specific blogs that you read on a regular basis, subscribing to their RSS feeds is the easiest way to ensure that you don’t miss any of their posts without having to manually go to each individual website and check for updates throughout the day. Google Reader is the preeminent RSS reader–it’s easy to add sources using the big blue “Subscribe” button on the left-hand side, and it’s also easy to organize your different feeds into folders, which in reality work more like tags than folders, since one item can be in as many different folders as you want. Reeder for iPad and iPhone is the best RSS reader that I’ve come across–it costs a few dollars ($2.99 for iPhone and $4.99 for iPad), but it’s worth every penny and then some. Just like with Twitter, it’ll take you awhile to figure out the right mix of sources that you want to read every day vs. sources you have the time to read every day. I organize my folders based on whether they’re primarily work-related (which I browse mostly during the day at work) or personal (which I browse only outside of work time), and then based on blogs I want to be sure I scan every day vs. others I’m OK with only looking at occasionally.

Facebook, of the three of these, is the one that lists turned from a time suck into a finite, manageable stream of information for me. If you rely on the newsfeed algorithm to serve you your Facebook world like I did (the default option), you’re allowing it to try to figure out who’s really important to you; Facebook lists are an easy way for you to decide exactly who’s important to you and to be sure that you’re seeing all of their posts, not just the ones Facebook thinks you should see. I don’t know of a way to create or edit lists from mobile devices, but it’s quick and painless from a desktop or laptop; see here for the basics. Again, it’ll take some tinkering to find the right balance, but creating a couple of lists was the best thing I ever did on Facebook.

4. Flipboard:
The best app I’ve found for browsing Twitter lists–it gives you link previews of articles and images in tweets, which keeps you from having to click on a link and wait for it to load to see what the content is, and you can favorite, retweet, and reply to tweets, save articles to Instapaper, and share links to Facebook all without leaving the app. It’s available on iOS and Android, and it’s easy to set up and sync across multiple devices.

5. Facebook for iPad and iPhone:
With the recently added ability to share posts and tag friends directly from the mobile apps, the iOS Facebook apps are the best way I’ve found to interact with your Facebook stream–browsing Facebook from my laptop seems clunky in comparison.

6. Reeder for iPad and iPhone:
The best RSS client I’ve found; see here for the iPhone download link, or here for the iPad download link.

7. Zite for iPad:
If you’re not as concerned with having a comprehensive system and you’re looking for a really easy way to get started, I highly recommend the newly redesigned Zite iOS app. It’s like a cross between Pandora and the New York Times–you connect it to your Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader accounts and tell it what you’re interested in, and then as it serves you articles you can rate them up and down, select trusted news sources to see more articles from, and easily share what you’re reading to any of the major social networks or save it to Instapaper or similar services to read later. Its setup is very similar to the New York Times iPad app, with a “Top News” section and as many topic-based sections as you want to add. The iPhone version is also good, but what sets the iPad app apart is the ability to rate articles up or down without having to open them first. When I’ve fallen behind on my feeds and I don’t feel like catching up, I spend 30 minutes with Zite and call it a day–it doesn’t catch Facebook status updates or any of the commentary from Twitter, but it does a pretty good job with everything else.

8. Email newsletters, alerts, digests, etc:
I highly recommend poking around your favorite news outlets and seeing what email subscription/alert options they have–and also asking your friends about their favorites. Here are the ones that I subscribe to:

      • New York Times breaking news updates
      • Washington Post breaking news updates
      • The Week’s daily “Top 10 things you need to know today”–this is an If This, Then That recipe, part of an incredibly useful service that I highly recommend exploring further when you have the time
      • Jason Hirschhorn’s Media ReDefined, a fantastic daily scan for anyone who’s interested in technology and entertainment media. It’s available via Twitter and RSS also if you prefer those formats; I found that it just drowned everything else in my queue out, which is why I like the newsletter
      • The Longreads weekly digest, a great place to find some good longer-than-10-minutes stories. Longreads, Longform, and The Feature all have good Twitter feeds for discovering similar content, too.
      • Now I Know by Dan Lewis, who gives you 2-3 truly interesting paragraphs each morning about something you’d probably never read about otherwise
      • The Economist’s Politics This Week weekly wrap-up of news from around the world
      • News.me, a great social media digest of the most-shared stories from your Twitter and Facebook networks from the previous day
      • Twitter’s similar daily digest of the most-shared stories from the people you follow on Twitter
      • Crosscut’s daily email, which previews the day’s Crosscut stories and adds in 4 or 5 good stories from around the region from the previous day’s news cycle
      • I don’t always take the time to read them, but for national political news you can’t go wrong with Mike Allen’s Playbook and Ezra Klein’s Wonkbook (go here and then sign in or create an account; it’s under “Business and Tech” for some reason)

9. Instapaper:
There are a lot of reasons to love the basic Kindle as far as I’m concerned, but none of them is as compelling for me as its high level of interoperability with Instapaper, Marco Arment‘s phenomenal read-it-later service and the backbone of my information diet in its current form. Some apps have built-in Instapaper functionality; for those that don’t, I load the article I want to save into a browser and then use one of two bookmarklets (little pieces of JavaScript that sit on your bookmarks bar but run a specific function when you click on them instead of taking you to a website) to save it for later–Read Later to send shorter articles to my Instapaper queue so that they get into my daily bundle the next morning, and Send to Kindle to send them directly to my Kindle as standalone documents.

Each morning at 5 am I get an Instapaper bundle with all of my Read Later articles that I haven’t read yet, and I can also access them anytime on the web or using one of the excellent Instapaper apps for iOS (which will also help you install the Read Later bookmarklet on your phone)–I recommend paying $1/month for a subscription so that you can get up to 50 articles per bundle, but the free version will still give you 10. Articles that I send straight to the Kindle using the Send to Kindle bookmarklet appear immediately.

See here for more information on setting up bundles (and scroll further down for the “Send to Kindle” bookmarklet), or see here for the normal “Save to Instapaper” bookmarklet and your unique email address for sending articles to your Instapaper queue. If you’re looking for more bookmarklets, this page has a great list that includes both of the Instapaper ones that I use, along with more for sharing to Facebook and Twitter, loading the cached version of a web page, and shortening URLs, among other things. It’s an especially useful page if you’re having trouble getting the bookmarklets into your mobile web browser.

A MEDIA DIET OF ONE’S OWN:

So that’s my system; I hope it’s helpful. As you’re thinking about your own, it’s important to note the strengths of each source of information you’re relying on. For example, I’ve found that Twitter’s strength is giving me access to a wide network of curators who find things I would never find on my own; Facebook is best for keeping up with personal updates from people I care about; RSS is the best way to make sure I don’t miss anything from the sources that are really important to me; the Seattle Times is still the best single source I’ve found for local information about Seattle, and the New York Times is the same for national and international news; and email newsletters and alerts are a great way to proactively get information pushed to me and also archive key moments from all of my other feeds in case I fall behind, not to mention that some of my feeds only exist as newsletters.

That’s all I’ve got for now! Any questions or feedback you have are always welcome.

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