Jason Pontin: What I Read
The editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review turns to his iPad after saying good morning to his wife, but the last thing he looks at before going to sleep is a hardcover book.
How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers. This is drawn from an email exchange with Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review.
My iPad sleeps beside my bed, and the second or third thing I do when I awake — after saying good morning to my wife and, possibly, preschooler (if he's crawled into my bed during the night) — is to raise its screen before my bleary eyes. I'll scan email briefly, noting the previous day's traffic to the stories on MIT Technology Review's web site, which Google Analytics sends me in the convenient form of an HTML digest. If there's an urgent email that requires my personal attention, and I can dispatch it quickly, I'll do so, but I try to practice good email hygiene, neither sending nor answering unnecessary email.
Finally, before getting out of bed, I launch Facebook's iPad app. I limit my FB friends to people with whom I have some kind of actual relationship, IRL or otherwise, and responding to messages and comments in my timeline just takes a moment. All this scanning and reading occupies 10 minutes or so. I check my calendar, and consider what I must do and say that day. Then I rise, to feed child, dress, walk dog, and get to work.
When I arrive at work, I'll start my laptop and desktop computers and open tabs in Google Chrome for three "news aggregators": Techmeme, Science Daily, and Arts and Letters Daily. Those sites provide me a sense of what my peers in the press are publishing throughout the day. If Google Analytics has shown me a lot of traffic from Slashdot or Hacker News, two aggregators that refer a lot of readers to our site, I'll look at the comment threads on those sites, too. Often, I respond to a few of the comments in stories on our own site. Finally, if I know that Reddit or 4Chan are having a nutty hour, I might look in to see what's causing all the aggro.
At lunch, if I'm at my desk, I'll visit the handful of blogs that I read regularly. Some notionally smart people claim that blogging is a "lost art," but that's not been my experience. Say, perhaps, that blogging is no longer a new and untrammeled medium. The trick, I think, isn't to look for bloggers on mainstream media sites, where they have become something both less and more than prolific columnists. Instead, I gravitate to bloggers who are independent, literate, curious, and experts in some field. If I name individual bloggers, those not named will inevitably feel hurt; but I can't cause too much offense if I praise Dave Winer, a programmer and observer of the technology and media industries, because he was one of the very first bloggers, and Aaron Swartz, a gifted young hacker and activist, because he's dead.
There are a half dozen new media organizations that grew out of blogs or simple sites that I read every day: They include Daily Dish, begun by Andrew Sullivan, GigaOm, founded by Om Malik, who worked with me at Red Herring in the 1990s, and Ars Technica, the creation of Ken Fisher. I neither like nor trust the best-known technology news site that grew out of a blog, TechCrunch. They publish rumors as stories with the thinnest of sourcing, and then retract the stories; their most prominent writers are investors in the companies they cover; and they're self-absorbed, in a witlessly unattractive way. Most of all, they publish too much with too little thought, which means they often merely rewrite press releases. On one infamous occasion, they rewrote and published a fake press release.
I find news online, and mostly through Twitter or aggregators, although I still subscribe to the printed editions of the Sunday New York Times and Boston Globe. But I am sentimental about printed magazines, and genuinely enjoy reading long stories in that medium. At work, I receive The New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, and Claremont Review of Books; Nature, Science, Scientific American, and The New Scientist; Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes, and Fortune; The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Lapham's Quarterly, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Granta, New Criterion, Poetry Magazine, N+1, and The Believer; and The New Yorker, The Economist, The Atlantic, and Wired. Most afternoons, I will usually read one or two articles from a printed magazine. I've also been watching with interest the innovations of The Atavist, a startup in Brooklyn that is exploring how to tell long-form stories in digital media. I no longer subscribe to Rolling Stone, Esquire, or New York, although I have enjoyed all those magazines in the past.
I watch very little television. I know there's an HBO series called Girls, but I've only seen clips. I don't condescend to those who feel gratified to see themselves reflected in such a show, but I don't have the time. At the end of the day, as I'm clearing out my desk, I may half-listen to the PBS News Hour. On Fridays, I like to watch Washington Week with Gwen Ifil, if I can. Since Tim Russert died, I've been unable to watch Meet the Press, or any of the other Sunday morning talk shows. Russert's show was a delight: He was intelligent, fair, intolerant of partisan talking points, and always prepared to ask questions. His guests, mostly, strived to rise to his standards; when they would not, he could be cruelly deflating.
On the other hand, I listen to a fair amount of radio. Driving in the car, I often catch National Public Radio's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and On the Media. And I visit the Web site of the BBC Radio 4 series In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg. It's wonderful intellectual theater. In every show, Bragg takes on some dense issue in philosophy, science, history or culture, inviting scholars in the field to unpack the subject. I've heard him lead a phalanx of philosophers through Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions, or force a choir of classicists to make Roman religion less opaque.
I spend more time than you would credit browsing the Tumblrs of designers, artists and photographers, searching for ideas for the art direction of my publications and sites.
In the evenings I might read a few more long magazine articles, but mostly I read books — sometimes in the iPad's Kindle app, but mostly in print. I have to read a lot to edit MIT Technology Review. At the moment, I am reading for an essay I must write about free speech in its era of technological amplification. The other night, for instance, I read Ronald Dworkin's essay, "Do we have a right to pornography?" from A Matter of Principle. But I'm not always so highbrow and serious. When I'm depressed, I reread Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin historical novels, or Gene Wolfe's great science fiction tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun. Both series comfort me.
Before going to bed, I'll check email, twitter, and Facebook one last time. Then, I lay down my iPad. The last thing I will read is old-fashioned: some sort of hardcover book.