Doing my job properly means reading a lot. Even before “reading,” though, it means scanning and gathering from a wide variety of sources, both here and in Latin America: news, journalism, analysis, scholarly and think-tank research, NGO reports, government documents, and my own fieldwork, meeting, and interview notes.
This “gathering” exercise is, for me, a well-worn morning ritual. It happens very early, and usually takes between 60 and 90 minutes. It’s a solitary task, usually performed with a smart playlist of mostly new, unheard music shuffled into my headphones. (I use Apple Music for this; if I hear a song I like, I give it a “star” rating and it goes into another playlist where I can hear it more often.)
At this point, I’m trying to figure out what’s happened and what’s relevant for my work. I’m not doing close reading, I’m saving things for later. I save the most important things in a database that I coded myself. You probably don’t need to do that. But I do recommend two “buckets” to put things in:
- A “read later” service that quickly cleans the HTML cruft away from, and archives, every article that I find of interest and seriously intend to read closely once I’m out of “gathering” mode. These services have apps that let you read saved articles on your phone or tablet, keeping everything in sync. I use Instapaper, which costs $30 per year, and it works fine for me. Pocket, its main competitor, may be just as good.
- Since those “read later” services can’t handle PDFs, you need a separate place to put PDFs to read later (in my case, these are mostly government reports, NGO reports, scholarly articles, hearing testimonies, and the like). Saving them to a folder that syncs with the cloud, like in Dropbox or iCloud, is fine. Some people like to use an archiving app like Evernote or DevonThink, which is fine too. The important thing is to be able to get to them easily when you’re in “reading” mode.
For me, “gathering” means consulting, in as fast and automated a way as possible, the websites of about 300 news outlets, NGOs, think tanks, blogs, and other sources of interest throughout the hemisphere. I’ve found it possible to do this in less than 90 minutes by relying on two tools: RSS and Nuzzel.
Did you know that almost every website that posts articles regularly has a “back end” that lists the articles in reverse chronological order? And that you can subscribe to dozens of these “back ends” at once, and read them all together like one big e-mail inbox?
RSS stands for “Real Simple Syndication,” and it was a big deal during the early 2000s. Google even had a service called “Google Reader” that was hugely popular and dominated the market, but then Google discontinued it when they couldn’t figure out how to make money from it.
The popularity of RSS never recovered—but most sites still have RSS feeds. Here’s mine. Here’s the New York Times’s “Americas” feed. Here are the feeds of Colombia’s El Tiempo. Here’s The Onion’s feed.
If you clicked one of those links, you may have seen a lot of XML code that was hard to read. That’s because you need to use a website or app called an RSS reader. These show you all the feeds you’ve subscribed to, as a giant list of articles. Most keep track of articles that you’ve read already, so you don’t have to see them again, you just see what’s new.
There are some good RSS readers out there: FeedWrangler, Feedly, Reeder, FeedBin, NewsBlur and NetNewsWire are probably the most common. On iOS, Unread and Reeder are great. I use FeedWrangler on my computer ($19 per year) because it has two key features. (Others may have these now too, but they didn’t years ago, the last time I was shopping around.) They are:
- “Smart streams.” I subscribe to over 300 feeds. That’s something like 4,000 articles per day, many of which are totally irrelevant to me. I can’t read through all that. I work on defense and security in Latin America, so I have a “smart stream” called “Military,” in which FeedWrangler looks through everything and just gives me articles that include the word roots <<“Armed Forces” OR “Fuerzas Armadas” OR military OR militar OR army OR ejercito OR “FF.AA.” OR FFAA OR “Guardia Nacional”>>. That gives me a much more manageable list that looks like this:
- Navigation without taking your hands off the keyboard. If you use Gmail and get hundreds of messages a day, hopefully you use the keyboard shortcuts that process your mail without you having to reach for your mouse, or even your arrow keys. (“J” for previous message, “K” for next message, “E” to archive the message, “R” to reply, etc.). It’s such a time-saver. FeedWrangler lets me navigate similarly through hundreds of articles each morning. J and K to go up and down; “I” to send it to Instapaper. I do have to reach for my mouse, though, if I want to open the article in another browser tab, which is usually necessary to read it more fully or to put it in my database.
That’s RSS, and I don’t know what I’d do without it. Also, when adding feeds to your RSS reader, be sure to mix in a few feeds from sites that you visit for fun: in my case, I’ve got feeds from many music, humor, culture, and politics sites, local neighborhood blogs, and tech and baseball news. Thanks to RSS, I usually find out about newly released music, upcoming concerts, or new gadgets on sale at 5:30 AM while gathering Latin America news and analysis.
Twitter and Nuzzel
Twitter now rivals RSS as a source of news and analysis. I follow over 1,000 colleagues, scholars, journalists, officials, and enthusiasts covering aspects of Latin American politics, security, human rights, or U.S. policy. And many of them are actively posting links to relevant stuff every day, much of it stuff that I would miss otherwise.
It’s impossible, though, to scroll through 1,000-plus people’s postings from the past 24 hours looking for links to click on. That’s where Nuzzel comes in. This free site looks at the accounts of everyone you follow, and spits out a web page with all of their most-linked-to pages over the past 24 hours (or other time period). That’s all it does, and it’s a huge help. I usually check Nuzzel first every morning, before wading into RSS.
If you want to go all in
RSS and Nuzzel give me 90-95 percent of what I gather every day, and they’re both very quick to navigate. But I check a few other things, as time allows, when I want to be complete.
- I keep a page with links to a few sites that don’t have RSS feeds, or have unreliable RSS feeds. Here is mine: it’s not a long list, and I only click on a few of these every day, if in the mood. You don’t need to have a website to make a page like this, even a Google Doc will do.
- At a higher but not insurmountable skill level, I use a command-line tool called youtube-dl to grab audio or video of think-tank events, congressional hearings, and official speeches or press conferences that might have interesting information. That way, even if I don’t have internet access, I can view or hear those resources later. Thanks to youtube-dl, for instance, I have a whole playlist of congressional hearing audios saved on my phone.
- I sign up for any relevant e-mailing lists, such as think-tanks and human rights groups announcing releases of reports. A small but hopefully growing number of people are also putting out newsletters, like James Bosworth’s Latin America Risk Report or the Perry Center’s Daily News Roundup.
Reading what you’ve gathered: still working on that
So that’s how I’m finding most of my information these days, and it works really well. This exercise, though, is the easy part: you’re sort of on autopilot, scanning through a firehose of sources for what’s important. Later, you have to dedicate separate time for reading (or watching, or listening to) whatever you’ve saved to “read later.” And ideally, while doing that reading you have some system for filing away the facts or other bits of information that you’d want to be able to refer back to later.
This is still an unsolved problem for me. I’ve now got a big pile of Instapaper files, a bursting folder of PDF documents, a stack of recently published books, and a long playlist of hearing and event audios. Closely reading them, and putting the important bits in a place where I can find them later, requires more time than I’ll ever have, and I haven’t figured out how to delegate much of it to others.
My database of saved information falls behind a lot, especially when I enter seasons of heavy travel, meetings, or publication deadlines. For now, I’m just doing my best. And even if I never catch up, I’ve still got a high level of “situational awareness” just from performing that daily “gathering” exercise every morning.