Automate Your News Reconnaissance

27 Jan 2013

Signs

Did you ever say to yourself - "I had enough of this whole internet browsing thing! It just has to stop!". So you quit cold turkey. But boy did you get back to it after a couple of days. A number of studies have shown that our willpower while being somewhat trainable, is still depletable. The same way we slide into tasty oblivion of junk food by the dusk, we tend to increase our news intake when we are tired, bored or stressed at work.

The Problem

It's hardly the best way to consume news - haphazard, jumpy, barely actionable. It can also feel quite overwhelming - especially when you see this huge, always growing pile of items sitting in your RSS or inbox. How often did you say to yourself:

"Screw this, I'm marking it all as 'read'!", so you can just get that illusion of control back?

Yet we keep piling up subscriptions to interesting blogs, rarely cancelling the old ones, being afraid to "miss out" on something that might get published there later. We follow new people on twitter, but rarely unfollow the ones we're not interested in anymore - partially due to the similar fear, and sometimes due to the social obligations - especially if followed back.

I am not saying Twitter, RSS feeds or email subscriptions are evil. They are just tools, and properly used can get you great results. But one needs to be careful and a bit more structured in his approach - as the old saying goes: "To a man with an RSS reader everything looks like a newsfeed".

Enter Automation

Most likely you already use some sort of automation for sourcing your news, even if you're not aware of this. Your twitter feed brings you interesting links (It does so, right? If it doesn't you are probably not following the right kind of people.). Your RSS reader is probably pointing to a bunch of news sites. And if you're particularly clever, it only points to the selection of the "top" stories.

Most people stop developing their news sourcing framework at this point, although there are some extra steps that you can take to free up lots of time that is usually taken by shortlisting activities of some sort.

You can automate, at least partially, shortlisting of news articles that are most relevant to you. This includes making a list of keywords that you are interested in and setting up a system of alerts, so you get notified one way or another when a matching article is found. Sounds too abstract? Please read on.

How to

First step is to shortlist the keywords you are interested in. You probably could come up with a few straight away - for me it was things like "book", "ebook", "free" (yes, I am a cheap bastard).

But that's only the tip of the iceberg. To generate more keywords, have a look at things like:

  • articles you recently saved for reading later (think Instapaper / Readability)
  • recent bookmarks
  • "favourites" or "stars" of any sort anywhere, for example emails
  • articles you shared on social media

After that, head straight to ifttt.com, sign up and start creating recipes that look at your favourite news sources (those need to be RSS feeds) and send you stories that match certain keyword. The bad thing about IFTTT is that you have to create a separate recipe for every keyword that you want to track - I don't think you can specify multiple keywords in one recipe.

If you don't want IFTTT emailing you, you can output those stories into your Evernote, Instapaper, or even write them into a flat file in your Dropbox. Heck, you can even SMS those to your phone (although I'd recommend strongly against it).

So far I've been more than pleased with the outcome - it's been delivering good quality matches, and very few non-relevant ones. It also looks like lots of people liked my shared IFTTT recipes, as they got reused over 200 times.

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