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 a conversation with Margaret Sullivan, formerly the editor of The Buffalo News who this month began her term as The New York Times public editor.
I usually check Twitter first thing in the morning. I use it as kind of a bulletin board, just to see what major thing may be happening. I’m not necessarily going to read things at that moment, but I want to get a feel for what happened while I was asleep. As a news junkie, I’ve found that it's a very effective way to get updated not only on major news events but also sort of thought scoops.
I may see something by The Times or about The Times in that initial Twitter glance-through. But then certainly before I leave the house in the morning, I’ve gone to The Times website and given it a pretty good read. So I see it on the web before I see it in print. And then when I get to work I read the print edition pretty thoroughly. And I also, at that point, read the print edition of The Wall Street Journal.
I have other newspaper sites that I like to look at regularly. They would include the Washington Post and the L.A. Times. Of course my hometown paper that I was the editor of for 12 years I look at quickly, which is The Buffalo News. I haven’t stopped my interest in that region. I read that on the web. The only newspapers that I’m now reading in print are The Times and The Journal. That was different a month ago when I was the editor of a newspaper and I was reading USA Today as well as The Times, The Journal, and The Buffalo News, in print. So I’ve gone from four to two.
It wasn’t really a conscious decision [to read more online]. It’s just that I’m really very immersed in the digital world right now. A big part of my mission as public editor is a digital mission, much more than other public editors in the past, whose job, basically, was to write an every-other-week print column. But mine is to blog frequently and to write the every-other-week print column. I blog pretty much every work day. So you know, it’s just the world I’m living in right now.
I think [of my work as] a combination of actively hearing from individual readers, and then also being aware through a variety of means, what the conversation is. But some of it is just through a critical reading of the paper and being attuned to what people are talking about and writing about.
One example is I blogged this week about the term “illegal immigrants” and whether that term, which The New York Times sometimes uses, is acceptable. Because there are people who don’t think it is. So at the Online News Association last week, an activist named Jose Antonio Vargas gave a speech about it. He also was in touch with me via email. And then I started doing some reading about it and I actually asked people on my blog to tell me their thoughts about it. And at the same time I was checking with The New York Times’ arbiters of Times style about why they do use it. So I was casting a pretty wide net. I was asking the reading public, which can include immigration lawyers and others, what they thought about it. And I got a great deal of response. So sometimes I’ll put a subject out there and see what comes in.
I am very tied to and dedicated to my iPhone, so I am reading a lot on my phone. I’m very plugged in all the time and I’m going between laptop, phone and desktop almost interchangeably all day long. I can’t say I have a strict order in which I do that. I’m swimming in those waters all the time.
I have a whole group of media websites that I read all the time. The three main ones would be Romenesko, Mediagazer, and Poynter’s Mediawire. I am a regular reader of The Atlantic Wire, I’m happy to say. I think you guys do great stuff. I’m of course a huge fan of James Fallows. He’s an icon. I read The New Yorker regularly, and there I particularly love Adam Gopnik. I read Vanity Fair. I like the way they sort of lure you in and then get the serious stuff in as well.
I’m very interested in certain columnists at different organizations. I love Eugene Robinson at The Washington Post. I’m a fan of Ruth Marcus, also at The Post. I have many reporters and columnists and writers at The Times who I’ve followed for years and very much enjoy. But given that I’m now the public editor at The Times, I won’t name them right here. But I still enjoy their work tremendously. There are a couple of other people I’d mention, though: I love Robin Givhan at The Daily Beast, who writes about fashion, and won a Pulitzer prize for it. I love Steve Lopez. He’s at the L.A. Times, as you probably know. And I like Rebecca Traister at Salon. I try to read a lot of different magazines from across the political spectrum. So I will read the National Review Online. I’m trying to make sure I’m getting a good diet across the spectrum.
Of course I’m a Facebook user like everyone else in the world, but I find that’s mostly for sort of social purposes, keeping up with family and friends. Although I did teach a journalism class in Buffalo and this was interesting: There was some major news event—I think it was the death of Osama bin Laden—and I asked the class, how did you find out about this, and they all to a person said Facebook. So it may be generational that I use it more for social purposes and not for news purposes so much.
I guess you could say my reading habits are more media-oriented early in the day and through the workday. And then I kind of ease out of that into book-reading in the evening and on the weekend too. I’m not a big TV watcher. I’ll certainly watch if something major is happening—I’ll watch CNN or some other news shows to see what’s going on—but it’s not a regular part of my media diet, I guess.
For many years I’ve been a book reviewer. When I was at The Buffalo News, and even as editor, I continued to review books. I really love to read, and I use reading, particularly reading books, as one of my great pleasures. I keep that separate from the world of media and media writing and ombudsmanship. Reading fiction and reading memoirs, and reading great nonfiction, and even poetry, is something I really enjoy and it’s been probably one of the great formative things in my life. I admire people like Joan Didion and Nora Ephron. These are people I’ve grown up reading and idolized and have really affected me so much.
One thing I might mention is that I’m on the Pulitzer board right now, so this past year, from January to May, my reading was very much assigned. We were reading the novels, the non-fiction, the poetry, the drama, all of the finalists that were going to be judged. so I was really working my way through all these. So when we met in May and finally got done with the judging, I sort of broke free and got into what I really want to read for my own enjoyment. It still feels like kind of a guilty pleasure just to be able to go to a bookstore and pick up exactly what I want to read and not have to check it against the list.
Right now I’m reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s a memoir of a woman who walked the Pacific Crest trail. It’s wonderful. Great voice and just a very compelling memoir. Just before that I had read Junot Diaz’s recent book of short stories, which I was lucky enough to have an advance copy of, so got a little bit of a jump on that. I’m usually reading a few different books, so the other book I’m reading right now is an old book. I guess it must have been published in the '60s: a bunch of essays by E.B. White that were published in the New Yorker called The Points of My Compass. I just picked it up because I admire him so much as a stylist, and because I am writing for a living now and so I’m kind of reconnecting with that.
I have a couple of other books that are on deck: Robin Wright’s book Rock the Casbah, her account of the Arab Spring, and The Good Girls Revolt, which is Lynn Povich’s book about the women at Newsweek who sued over sexual discrimination at the magazine. I guess the third one is Jeffrey Toobin’s most recent book about the supreme court called The Oath.
Although I don’t think I mentioned much fiction in my list of what I’m reading right now, I’m actually very interested in fiction. I love Zadie Smith and I love Michael Chabon, and I’m really interested in both of their new books as well. I tend to keep up with whatever they write.
I’m a big popular music fan, so I’m always sort of just looking for the next great band that I’m going to love. It’s not necessarily radio or something like that. It’s the album I fall in love with. I’ve been listening to Jack White’s album, Blunderbuss. That’s the one that’s on my regular rotation right now.
I’ve been very interested in a few Canadian bands that you probably haven’t heard of, but the Tragically Hip and the Lowest of the Low. Because I was in this proximity to Toronto, I was into new music in Toronto. Let’s see, who else? Certainly I’m a big fan of Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, nothing shocking or surprising there, but I kind of span quite a few decades. A whole other genre I’ve been listening to a lot is neo-soul and R&B. I especially like Raphael Saadiq, Mayer Hawthorne, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. The Miseducation of Lauren Hill is something I don't seem to get tired of. I'm also a fan of Citizen Cope, the blues-folk-soul singer-songwriter, particularly his album, The Clarence Greenwood Recordings.
But I’ve definitely continued to search for new music as well. I use Pandora, of course, like everyone. But I also like Paste and Grooveshark. And the stalwart Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly magazines still do a great job.