How do you keep up?

In June I gave a talk to news librarians at the Special Libraries Association Conference where the question “How do you keep up?’ was a central concern. This is a question that I hear frequently from my students, from reporters and from academic colleagues. Given our 24-hour news cycle, pressures to get the scoop quickly, and a myriad of information resources emerging daily, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep informed without feeling overwhelmed. In the face of so much information, I sometimes find myself using the same trusted resources over and over again, all the while wondering what I might be missing. There has to be some way to stay on top of this tidal wave of information resources without drowning. This month’s column reflects my struggle to keep pace without becoming overwhelmed. In it I offer a handful of strategies and resources that are saving me time and sanity, and I interview Paula J. Hane, news bureau chief for Information Today, Inc. to find out how she keeps up.

Strategies for Keeping Up:

  1. Have information pushed to you.

You probably already subscribe to e-mail alerting services and e-newsletters, but you can also have information pushed to you by using RSS feeds and web page watcher software. These tools let you keep track of content on websites, blogs and podcasts without having to go to those resources and navigate their content repeatedly. You select the websites, blogs, and podcasts that interest you and whenever new content appears, the content is sent to you in an aggregated form that saves you time and navigational effort. I promise to devote a future column to discussing RSS in more detail, but in the meantime, there is an easy tutorial on how to get started using RSS at CNET.

It isn’t difficult to use RSS and probably the simplest way to get started is to go to one of the many news feed readers, set up an account and try it for yourself. There are a number of easy-to-use news feed readers available (some for free), that you can either install on your computer or access from the web. Some of the more popular readers are:

Although the number of websites that offer RSS feeds is growing, the majority still do not. This is particularly true for discussion forums, download sites, paid content websites and password protected content on the web. This is where web page watcher software can help. These tools also enable you to tailor the content that you receive by filtering for certain words or phrases or media types. For instance, an RSS feed from a frequently updated website like CNN can be overwhelming. Web page watcher software allows you to specify content updating form CNN only when certain words or phrases are present, or only when the content includes video. Some of the more popular web page watcher tools are:
WebSite-Watcher (my personal favorite)

2. Manage feeds, bookmarks and other web resources.

I’m a packrat and tend to hold onto things for much longer than they are needed. Whenever I start a new project, I amass scores of web and print resources – many of which have a limited shelf life. I recently went through my bookmarks to do a bit of cleanup and found that I still had links to resources from five years ago – many of which I no longer needed, and some of which pointed to websites that were no longer available. I know that I need to become more ruthless in reevaluating sources and purge more regularly, and I’ve been toying with adopting an “Add one, drop one” rule. There are web organizing tools available to help, and I’m investigating them now. I’ll report back in a future column.

  1. Let an expert keep up to date for you.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must state for the record that I used to be a librarian at CNN (as if you couldn’t tell). Librarians are amazing people with exceptional skills in searching for information and organizing that information so that others can find it easily. It is the librarian’s job to keep up to date on the newest and best resources on the web so that you don’t have to. If you have access to a news librarian, he/she will have extensive knowledge about the types of sources that you are seeking, and will be all too familiar with the special needs of reporters working under tight deadlines. Moreover, librarians (particularly news librarians) will have access to (and expertise with) pricey databases that can be expensive to search if you don’t know what you are doing. News librarians in many organizations have also set up RSS feeds, podcasts, and other tools to push tailored print and web content to their reporters.

News librarians have been instrumental in a number of Pulitzer Prize winning investigations over the years (see Examples of Top News Research Efforts) and a good news librarian can save you time and money, so do use them when possible.

That’s it from me for this month. Don’t forget to check out the interview with Paula J. Hane, news bureau chief for Information Today, Inc. on how she keeps current while maintining her sanity.