Trimming the Hedges

Web jungle, Web garden—you decide

It may seem like people have been gawking at the proliferation of online news sources for ages now, but it was not so long ago that readers had a much narrower field of options. The Democratic and Republican national conventions threw that fact into high relief at the end of last summer. The New York Times media critic David Carr catalogued the presence of online news outlets during the Democratic gathering: “Politico, which also puts out a newspaper, had 40 people in Denver. The Huffington Post had 20 people, Talking Points Memo had 9, Daily Kos had 10, Slate had 7 and Salon had 9. That list is far from comprehensive and does not begin to describe how thoroughly mediated this convention was.” And save for the latter two (which sent the fewest reporters) and TPM, all of those outlets just wrapped up either their first or second presidential campaign.

Add to this mix the seemingly endless variety of blogs, and it’s no wonder that many readers—even professional journalists—feel lost. What most misunderstand, though, is that the problem is not information overload, but rather access-to-information overload. Since well before the creation of the printing press, there has been more news available on a given day than any one person could follow, and more information than any one reporter could process. It’s just that today both reporter and reader have much greater access to the news and information, and as such, there is a greater need to employ filters and other tools to help us organize and manage the deluge.

Plenty of these devices already exist, but it takes some time to set them up and maintain them. Most are right under readers’ and journalists’ lcd-strained eyes, embedded in the program that provides all that access to the news in the first place: the Web browser. Bookmarks (or Favorites, for PC users) are one of software engineers’ simplest but greatest gifts to news hogs. The problem is that it’s so easy to bookmark pages that most people forget to organize them, much like photos in an album.

It is amazing what a well-organized set of folders and subfolders (labeled any way you see fit) for bookmarks, RSS feeds, and e-mails (not to mention podcasts, videos, and photos, all of which can be filed neatly on an iPod) will accomplish. At the rate people bookmark, subscribe to feeds, and sign up for e-mail alerts, however, it is also amazing how much time it can take to keep on top of it all. I probably spend a couple of hours a month clearing out unwanted items and sorting new ones.

Once that base of operations is established, though, the Web is your oyster. Some will still complain that while browsing, they often get carried off down some undesired link trail or that, later, they can never find something that they’d like to recall. That’s information overload, I guess, but setting your browser to open new windows separately or in tabs, and relying on the history menu to find lost threads fix most problems. Sure, some sand will always slip through your fingers, but you’ll certainly be catching more of it than ever before.

The tools are only getting better with online storage. If you stick with your browser’s bookmarks, make sure you’re using a free program, like Foxmarks (if you’re on Firefox), that stores them online. You can access them from anywhere, and if your machine craps out, you won’t lose them. Even better, use a social bookmarking site like delicious that allows you to sort Web pages under multiple tags at one time and search other libraries as well.

A full range of RSS feeds and e-mail alerts should complement bookmarks. Together they form a sort of triumvirate. Each has its own uses, and I like to build in plenty of overlap, receiving information from many of the same sites via all three pathways. That may sound like it compounds the problem of information overload, but again, either your browser or a site like delicious offers opportunities to group them all together and turn your news jungle into an easily navigable but high-maintenance garden. All you have to do is trim the hedges once in a while. 

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.