More news not good news

I’m not sure which news story was more over-the-top this week: Michael Jackson’s memorial or the announcement of Google’s Chrome operating system.

Google announced the latter on its blog at 9:37 pm on Tuesday, July 7. Many online news outlets had their stories up within an hour or two of that announcement. Ars Technica actually scooped them all by about an hour with some nice, old-school reporting.

By the time I got to work Wednesday morning and began browsing through my RSS feeds, I had my choice of 14 stories about Chrome. None of them substantially advanced the story beyond, “It’s here! (Well, not yet. But it will be!)”

But within 24 hours, those same feeds were choked with 55 more stories about Chrome, most of them trying to explain What It All Means—what we used to call “second day stories,” back when the news came out once a day.

Frankly, those 69 stories about Chrome OS were at least 65 more than I really needed. (Don’t get me started on the number of my feeds that mentioned Michael Jackson this week—300 stories and counting.)

All the news, fit or not

The journalist in me loves the the fact that there’s so much competition in online news. But as a reader, the super-abundance is driving me a bit nuts.

I currently follow 40 or so technology news feeds. (I used to follow many more.) I do so because I know that, once in a while, a story will appear on one site and not on any of the others, and I don’t want to miss that one story.

But getting your news online takes work. My algorithm for scanning RSS feeds is something like: Have I seen this story already? If yes, skip it and go to next. If I haven't seen it already, does it look like it's worth reading? If yes, read it. If not, skip it and go to next.

In the case of the Chrome announcement, I spent a lot of time that first morning saying, “Next,” because none of those 14 initial news stories was substantially different from the others.

But by the afternoon, I had to slow down. Because that’s when the reporters put on their pundits hats and started analyzing the announcement. Trouble was, there wasn’t much to analyze.

Two stubborn facts made analysis difficult: Chrome won’t be available for another year. And we know precious little about it beyond its due date and the fact that it’s designed primarily for netbooks. Nobody really knows at this point what impact, if any, the Chrome OS will have on you, me, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or anyone else.

But that didn’t stop the bloviation: “Five Reasons Why Microsoft Does Not Need to Worry About Chrome.” “Google’s War on the PC.” “How Will Chrome OS Change Gaming?” “Netbook OS Oddsmaking: Who Will Win the War?”

(A sub-routine in my feed-filtering algorithm: If the headline uses the word “will,” go to next.)

Posting something, anything at all, about Chrome OS was guaranteed to up your page views this week, so everybody (even Entertainment Weekly) did.

Unfortunately, most of those stories (with a few sensible exceptions) were either redundant or hooey. (For an excellent example of the latter, see TechCrunch’s jaunty Chrome coverage, which the Register then dissected with great relish.)

A news diet

It’s worth noting that the stories I liked best weren’t necessarily the first. And while I admire the enterprise that got Ars Technica the scoop on the Chrome news, it really made no difference to me as a reader. I wasn’t online at 10:00 pm on Tuesday, so I didn’t really need the information then; 9:00 am Wednesday worked just fine for me.

And even if I did get that information eleven hours earlier, what difference would that have made? I wouldn’t have been readier to take action, because there was no action to take; even if i wanted to, I couldn’t switch to Chrome OS for another year. I certainly wouldn’t have done so that night.

But there are people out there for whom even those eleven hours are way too long. This guy at TechCrunch says RSS is no longer fast enough, because “the lag time between posting a story and seeing it pop up in the RSS feed is usually a few minutes, and then it can take another 10 to 15 minutes or so for it to appear in something like Google Reader.” It’s news-as-video-game: whoever twitches fastest wins.

Well, this whole Chrome thing has made me twitchy. It’s time, once again, for a bit of a news diet. I currently subscribe to a total of about 150 RSS feeds. My resolution: To cut that list in half. (NetNewsWire’s feed reports are a huge help.)

I've done this before, but it's like cleaning your desk: You can't just do it once. The trick to finding the right balance between too much information and not enough is to favor succinct and reliable over complete and fast.

For example, I long ago unsubscribed from both Gizmodo and Engadget. Sure, they’re exhaustively complete and often first to a story. But it takes too much time and effort to filter through their fire-hoses of content for stuff I care about, and what’s left is too often unreliable. (This week’s boo-boo: Engadget posts what it claims are the first screenshots of Chrome OS, only to update the story a few hours later to admit that the shots were fakes.)

Will I miss stuff if I cut out some feeds? Probably, though I’ll likely just read it a little bit later than I might have otherwise. That delay doesn’t bother me, especially if it means I can spend less time filtering and more time reading.

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