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Put Down that Newspaper!

Websites like Gawker are today's news-breakers. Here's how to stay on top of the online info flux.

By Shannon Rupp 24 May 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor of The Tyee. Read her previous articles here.

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Gawker.com knows the value of a good story.

Like most of Canada I learned of Toronto mayor Rob Ford's alleged encounters with crack via my favourite news of nonsense site, Gawker.com.

The 10-year-old site is a fine bastion of quick-witted writers and too-sharp-to-be-amateur commenters and they're often first with what we used to call water cooler stories. A few months ago they delighted us all with the saga of the Deranged Sorority Girl, a potty-mouthed Delta Gamma at the University of Maryland who has a way with words and a flair for angry emails.

And who could forget their take on last summer's maple syrup heist in Quebec: "We Gave Canada One Job, Don't Lose All the Maple Syrup, And They Couldn't Do It."

Commenters predicted a CBC movie of the caper, Thicke's 13, starring Alan Thicke, Ryan Gosling, Evangeline Lilly, and rest of Hollywood's Canadian mafia. Eugene Levy was proposed to play the syrup mogul and Justin Bieber would supply some earworm for the soundtrack.

Gawker makes a mockery of newspapers

If you find me collapsed in paroxysms of laughter, it's usually because I'm reading Gawker or something related. And how can you not love that? Certainly the Toronto Star loves Gawker. I presume that's where they scavenged the maple syrup story and so many others that appear on their site well after the Gawker Mocker debuts them. It's called "over-aggregation" -- matching a story from another outlet without crediting them. And once proud newspapers across the country have taken to doing it with embarrassing frequency, as they trail behind the far more nimble bloggers.

I was in a restaurant catching their updates while waiting for a friend and laughing over the commentary Gawker sparked -- including a great gag by my Tyee colleague Steve Burgess -- when my pal arrived and demanded to know what was so funny.

"Wanted: Canadian politician, inept/venal/gormless, to complete a touring vaudeville trio. Curly red hair a plus. No fatties. Call Rob or Mike."

She looked at me blankly.

"Burgess has Duffy and Ford advertising for the third Stooge," I said, wondering why my normally sharp friend missed the joke about sleazy politicians. But she still looked blank.

"In Steve's imaginary world Ford and Duffy are about to be out of a job, so all they need is a third corrupt Stooge and they can take it on the road as a vaudeville act," I detailed, utterly killing an excellent joke (sorry Steve).

"Ford? You mean Toronto Mayor Rob Ford?" she asked, grasping for understanding.

Now I looked blank. Had she not seen the news? Gawker broke the story around dinner time the day before and shortly thereafter announced a fundraising kickstarter -- the crackstarter! -- to crowdsource the $200,000 necessary to buy the smartphone video from the (alleged) drug dealer who (allegedly) shot Toronto's mayor (allegedly) in flagrante-with-crack-pipe.

Hilarious! Even funnier, the Star, miffed at being beaten by a mere blogger, had posted a video of two of their reporters insisting that they knew all about that video (dammit!). They have notes of what they saw on that video! No video alas. But they've seen it!

An 'information intervention'

How could my pal have missed what promises to be one of the most delightful political scandals of the year?

Well, it turns out she is a member of a breed so rare I thought it was extinct -- a newspaper reader who peruses actual newsprint and just newsprint, supplemented by radio. When she sees a story that's been bouncing around the internet for a week or more, she doesn't mind -- it's news to her.

It was like finding a unicorn. A really disgruntled unicorn.

Right up until that moment, my friend thrilled at the luxury of missing the tawdry stuff like Bieber announcing that Anne Frank would have been a belieber. She's a traditionalist, which means she enjoyed observing "the internet is a sewer," and limiting her use to the occasional google. But she confessed to feeling isolated -- she doesn't get the jokes often and references in print stories leave her bemused.

"So how do we read now?" she asked.

I showed her how I read now. But since we all do it differently, I was hoping The Tyee's web-savvy readers would be generous and share their own tips in the comments section. Think of it as an information intervention.

Save now, read later

Mobile devices -- smartphones, tablets -- work best with apps like The Tyee's, but I only use site-specific apps for outlets I view daily. Generally, I'm a news grazer choosing a story here and a story there. So I use apps like Instapaper and Pocket which pick-up any story and turn it into mobile-friendly copy for reading later.

I'm also a big fan of Evernote. I used to read newspapers scissors-in-hand, now I clip stories to Evernote, a sort of digital filing cabinet that I can keep in my pocket, via the mobile app.

Google Alerts: Every news outlet has some good reporters but I have no interest in the omnibus packages stuffed with "content" -- fake news stories funded by advertisers and tarted up to look like journalism. It's so disrespectful of readers that I'm actually offended when I trip over this drek. So I have alerts on the names of good beat reporters who do original work in the areas that interest me.

I also have subject alerts on the things I'm researching. When the emails arrive, I click on the link, go to the story, and slap it on Instapaper to read later.

I still use RSS feeds, although they're declining in popularity. It's one way to keep up with good blogs. I skim Google news first thing every morning, and then skim my RSS reader, Feedly. It's also mobile.

I use a mobile app called BlogLovin to follow picture-heavy blogs like ApartmentTherapy.com -- it's the Martha Porn for lovers of small-space décor -- and The-Anthology.com a Vancouver fashion blog by former Tyee contributor Kelsey Dundon.

Favourite sites and sources

Gawker: I've been joking for years that Gawker is the only news we really need and with the Ford story I was thrilled to say, I told you so. They have an old-fashioned newspaper editor's sense of what makes for great copy and many of their supposedly trivial stories are actually revealing of this time and place. Historians, I predict, will look to Gawker more often than the New York Times when they try to get a sense of North American culture in the early 21st century.

Canadian Press: Click a newspaper link for a significant story and you're likely to find it was written by a Canadian Press reporter. So I follow the CP wire feed via The Tyee and individual CP reporters via Twitter.

Wired.org: Much of what is new and interesting in the world is reported first on the tech sites and Wired covers most of it.

National Public Radio is where I get most of my American news.

BBC, Britain's superb public radio service is a great source of international news, which is where North American news outlets really fail. But I also like them for culture, science reporting, and something rarely seen over here -- radio drama.

For leisure reading and other information I don't need urgently, I sign up for email newsletters.

I'm a culture junkie so I subscribe to ArtsJournal.com, a terrific aggregator site that gives me arts stories from outlets mostly in the U.S. and the U.K. I also subscribe to a host of magazines and journalism industry news sites like Nieman Journalism Lab, where they discuss FON -- the future of news. (It's brighter than you think.)

Journalists add value on social media

When I joined Twitter in 2007 I joked about it being the narcissists' lunch report and you can still find people who announce they're starting a colon cleanse or gush over their lunch dates. Don't follow them.

At its best, Twitter is a good place to find witnesses to all sorts of things. I follow a lot of journalism and new media conferences via hashtags. And I catch hashtags from art galleries and theatre lobbies in other cities. Culture is international; shows tour, and artists influence each other, so I'm always interested in the buzz and the stories they link to.

News stories have hashtags and I follow some staff reporters who are using Twitter to report news they can't get into their outlets for whatever reason. Sometimes they link to their own blogs. I would ask what their employers think of it -- the reporters are making themselves far more useful than their outlets -- but I'm so thrilled with this development that I'll just keep quiet.

Twitter is also the digital newspaper boy and smart outlets are highlighting their work there. I search hashtags that interest me to find stories from all over the world.

Facebook serves a similar function for me. I have it set to feature stories from websites and people whose work interests me. I also rely on friends to post interesting stuff, often from the beats they cover, their industries, or their passions. Some people are such good curators that I have their not-to-be-missed posts on alert. My stream is tailored to be blissfully free of kitty videos and foodtography, but be warned -- you have to pick your friends carefully to use FB this way.

My web-averse pal actually blanched after I handed her the list -- the result of about eight years of tinkering -- and protested that it was too much work, she didn't have time. But I spend no more time on my daily news reading than she does. About 30 minutes over coffee every morning; and a few minutes at the end of the day. And the quality-to-time ratio is much better.

I dip into news feeds throughout the day because that's my job, but if I had my fantasy job -- librarian -- I wouldn't bother. Much of online news is repetitive.

Noting the terror in her eyes, I suggested she just supplement her print regime with a daily visit to Gawker. They understand something most mainstream media seem to have forgotten: sometimes the most interesting news is just smart writing on dumb stories.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Media

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