Untangling the Web: Maximize your news time

9 ways to increase your enjoyment and efficiency when reading up on current affairs online.

By ELANA KIRSH
November 28, 2011 14:27
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Newspaper laptop sports 311. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank [illustrative])

 
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We all read the news for different reasons. Some of us think we’re addicted, some of us are bored at work, others live in places where the volatile political climate makes them think they have no choice, and others still do it because they think they “should.” When it comes down to it, we read news online because we choose to, regardless of the factors behind that choice.

Online news is no longer simply print media in a modern, digital form. Online news is dynamic and varied; the breadth and depth of content and platforms on the Internet are expanding every day, and the more we realize that, the more we can benefit from the medium.

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So, without further ado, here are nine ways (in no particular order) to increase both your efficiency and enjoyment while surfing the news online.

1. Aggregate

There is a range of Web-aggregators out there when it comes to news, and the main differences between them are their levels of personalization. I’d recommend using one on each side of the scale, and one somewhere in the middle.

What does this mean in practice? For me: The Drudge Report, Google News and Google Reader. Each of these aggregators has its own pluses and minuses, and each plays a different role in my online news experience.

When I look at The Drudge Report, for example, I take into consideration the political leaning of the site while when skimming the headlines, but enjoy the range of stories from sources that I wouldn’t necessarily check myself. With Google News I also fall prey to Google’s algorithms and cluster system, but I can set up sections for subjects that interest me, I find the interface clean and easy to skim, and I like keeping my finger on the pulse of developing world stories that wouldn’t otherwise hit my radar. I use Google Reader mainly from my smartphone, often for analysis or in-depth features that I don’t have time to read while I’m working or on the go. It makes categorizing and subcategorizing articles simple and can be used both online and offline.

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Now the first and second types of aggregate site are easy – just type in the URL and you’re good to go, but once you’ve got yourself set up using a Google Reader-type aggregator, you’ll realize that you were constantly looking at news stories and thinking, “Oh, I don’t have time to read that now,” and going on to something else. This is where you’ll get the most use out of a personalizable aggregator. When you’ve only got five minutes, you can do the quick skim over the headlines that you had planned, and keep the in-depth articles for when you have time.

2. Get yourself a good adblocker

This one doesn’t need that much explanation. Unless you have subhuman concentration, pop-ups and other annoying ads are just going to distract you, and take away from the little time you have free to read the news. If you’re less annoyed, you’re going to enjoy it more. End of story.

3. Stop thinking of social media as purely social

There’s more to the news media-social media relationship than just tweeting stories that interest you or live-blogging breaking personal stories for your Facebook friends. Recent developments in both news websites and social media sites mean that you can integrate keeping up to date on current affairs with keeping up to date with your friends, in the way that works best for you. On Facebook, you can “Like” your favorite journalists to see their updates in your news feed, and on Twitter you can follow news sources.

You might not necessarily click on the links or read the whole post every time, but it leaves your options open to read stories that catch your attention while you’re using social media for more “traditional” purposes.

4. Read opinion & analysis pieces

Most people who like to keep themselves up to date on current events also like reading opinion and analysis pieces, but complain that they just don’t have the time. This a mistake, and severely handicaps the depth of understanding we have of today’s pressing issues. Granted, you probably don’t have the time to read a 1,000+ word piece in the middle of the workday when you’re skimming headlines. So save it for later, rather than ruling it out for being too long.

The advent of the Internet has meant that the man on the street often does the first step of reporting – getting the word out that an incident has taken place, but we can’t let that be the end of the process. When it comes to the “why” – the context and background and possible repercussions – we need to hear from the experts. A well-written, thoroughly researched piece, rather than a breaking news alert, can change the way you see an issue.

Read a range of opinions, challenge yourself – it’ll make the news mean more that just knowing the facts and figures of what’s going on around you.

5. Use the Internet

Which brings us to my next tip: if you’re reading the news online, then you’re already sitting in front of the best source of information available at the moment – make the most of it. If you don’t know who a certain person is when you’re reading a news article, Wikipedia them, read up, do your own research.

News articles are going to give you what’s new, and hopefully some explanation and context, but not necessarily all of the background that you need to properly understand an issue, especially if you’re reading a lot of breaking news alerts. Take the initiative and do it yourself; it’ll broaden the experience and give the news you read more meaning.

6. Read happy news

Reading the news getting you down? Try scrolling down to the bottom of your favorite websites. You’re unlikely to find breaking news stories down there, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking. Keeping yourself updated needn’t mean only reading up on diplomatic, political, security and economic matters – it could also mean finding out about a new band playing in your city, looking after your health, or supporting a new cause.

Websites generally showcase their softer, lower-profile content on the lower half of the homepage – magazine articles, reviews, lifestyle pieces and local news. Add a few lighter stories into your news mix – maybe even put them on Google Reader for when you have time – and you might find that reading the news doesn’t feel like such a depressing chore.

7. Challenge your preferred news source

This is probably not a good idea for every news story you read, but it’s worth a go from time to time. Choose a story which interests you, preferably something at least slightly controversial, and look it up on three news sources. Try to find a selection of original work and wire stories, from a variety of political leanings and regions, and then play spot the difference. Pay attention to which details are included, how the headline is phrased, terminology and photo choice.

The Internet has broadened the scope of stories out there, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t good journalism to be found. It’s just that there’s far more questionable journalism on the Internet, often posing as “real” news. Keeping a keen sense of questioning about us can help to find the diamonds in the proverbial rough.

8. Give in to your techno-ADHD

The online experience is fragmented. Flipping through multiple browser windows while simultaneously loading videos on YouTube, checking e-mails and online chatting is par for the course. While obviously the ability to concentrate is crucial to other tasks, including reading in-depth articles, sometimes it’s okay to give in.

Follow links in articles – maybe it doesn’t really matter if you finish reading the entire piece you were reading before you came across something that interested you more. Read the comments your Facebook friends posted on an article which someone shared – they might bring your attention to an issue you hadn’t heard about. Answer polls, click through galleries, watch videos, keep an online dictionary open as you read in your second language.

Obviously there’s a time and a place; when you’re on a deadline is probably not the best time to try this one out. But when you do have time, the online experience is spontaneous, flashing and sporadic – embrace it every now and then. 

9. Turn off your computer/smartphone/tablet

The Internet is the most convenient way to keep up on current affairs for most of us, but it’s not the only way. Branch out to other news media when you have the chance, both to stimulate other senses and to help you realize and appreciate what it is you like about the Internet.

Sitting on the couch with a remote control in hand lends itself to a completely different user experience than sitting upright at the computer at work, even if you’re watching the exact same footage. The television experience tends to be a more pure form of entertainment, and for some people, some stories and some situations, that lends itself to more enjoyment. By the same token, television broadcast is a massive, far-reaching medium which should not be ignored, even if you don't access it as often as Internet news.

Similarly, radio news is worth tuning in to when possible; most smartphones have a radio function, and of course driving time often doubles as news time. Radio news is often the most up to date news source, especially in Israel, and hearing live sound bites rather than reading written comments can foster a far deeper understanding of the meaning behind them.

Like the Internet, watching the evening news or a listening to a morning talkshow can introduce subjects you weren’t necessarily looking for, and potentially bring up new interests.

The bottom line: More people get their news online than from any other source. The most recent estimates put the number of pages on the Internet at over two billion. That’s a lot of material. Let’s make the most of it.

The writer is The Jerusalem Post's Internet desk manager

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