I’ve been a fan of Noah Brier and Colin Nagy’s great “Why Is This Interesting?” newsletter for quite awhile now, so I was honoured to be asked to submit an interview as part of their regular “media diet” feature. You can check it out at their site, or you can read it below:
Tell us about yourself.
I’m the chief digital writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, which is published by Columbia University, but I live in Canada (in a secret location known only as “The Meadows”). I write about the intersection of media and the internet, which means basically everything from Facebook and Twitter to 4chan and QAnon. Before I joined CJR, I wrote about media for Fortune magazine and, before that, for a blog network called GigaOm that was started by my friend Om Malik. Prior to that, I spent about 15 years as a reporter, columnist, and editor at a national newspaper in Toronto called the Globe and Mail. While I was a business reporter there in 1995, I started a stock index that included some early internet giants, including Netscape, and that was the beginning of my fascination with the web. I started the paper’s first blog, and then at one point around 2008, they put me in charge of social media — I’m pretty sure I was the first social-media editor at any major newspaper in North America, as far as I know. I started the paper’s first Twitter and Facebook accounts (imagine trying to describe “tweeting” to senior executives in 2007) and introduced things like live-blogging to reporters and editors, and also helped launch and moderate reader comments. That was back when the internet and I were both still young and naive 🙂
Describe your media diet.
I read everything I can get my hands on, from the backs of cereal boxes to old magazines at the dentist’s office and everything in between. Most of my hard news content comes either through Twitter lists that I’ve created over the last decade or so, or through newsletters I subscribe to (like this one!), but I also subscribe to and read (or skim at least) most of the major news publishers like the NYT, Washington Post, etc. as well as the New Yorker and The Atlantic. I like the BBC’s international coverage, and I also read some other sources like Al Jazeera to get a different perspective on world events. In my spare time, I like to read old-school blogs like Kottke.org and Metafilter, and I like to browse Tumblr and Reddit — Reddit’s “Today I Learned” and “Explain It Like I’m Five” in particular are great, but there are also sub-Reddits that do an amazing job of covering news, like the one that has been reporting on the war in Syria.
What’s the last great book you read?
I’m a big sucker for speculative fiction, so I really enjoyed Cory Doctorow’s “Walkaway,” which is about a world in which a small group of rebels reject the surveillance and control machinery operated by rich elites and “walk away” from the modern world to create their own gift-based economy, and the inevitable clash between the two. I also really liked William Gibson’s book “The Peripheral,” which is about a post-apocalyptic world that figures out how to open a two-way portal to an earlier time (roughly equivalent to our time), and a woman who learns how to exist in both worlds.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver Baroque trilogy. It’s a fun read, with Stephenson’s trademark digressions into esoteric description (which I love, although not everyone does) and I’m learning a lot about the development of science, and some of the personalities involved in the early days of the Enlightenment, in the 1600s. It’s hard to think of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz as real people with desires and foibles, but Stephenson does a great job of making them and their time period really come alive.
What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?
This is a tough one, because I hardly ever read the print version of things (other than CJR, of course). I usually flip through until I find something that catches my eye
Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?
There are a lot of great journalists at the Times and the Post, so it would be hard to pick just one or two from either of those places. Outside of the mainstream outlets, I am a big fan of Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat, and I think everyone should read Luke O’Neil’s newsletter “Welcome to Hell World.”
What is the best non-famous app you love on your phone?
I don’t know if it’s famous or not, but the most-loved app on my phone is probably WordPress, which I still love because I’ve been using it more or less daily since about 2005 or so. I write everything in it, whether it’s for CJR or for my personal site at https://mathewingram.com/work, where I continue to post anything that catches my eye, even though hardly anyone but me goes there 🙂
Plane or train?
That’s another tough one. I like planes because they can get me to places like Europe (tough to get to by train!) But once I am there, I love to travel by train everywhere, so I would have to say it’s a bit of both.
What is one place everyone should visit?
I would highly recommend a visit to Matera, an ancient city in southern Italy that has been continuously inhabited for at least 8,000 years, if not more. It’s famous for the limestone caves that many local farmers and their families (and their goats and sheep) lived in for centuries. Until the 1950s, people still lived in the caves, and the area was quite poor, but word got out about the conditions there, and the Italian government moved everyone out to nearby towns. Over time, the city became a UN heritage site, and people gradually started moving back in, and turned the caves into apartments and cafes, and it became a tourist destination. It’s a fascinating and beautiful place. But be prepared for a leg workout if you stay there, because everything you want to get to is either up or down several flights of stone steps from where you are, if not both.
Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell deep into.
I’ve dug into quite a few lately! They are my favorite thing about the internet. For example, I found out that even aeronautical engineers aren’t 100 percent sure what keeps airplanes in the air. And I learned about Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two women in the 1700s who were not only fearsome pirates but also lovers. Why is this not a movie already? If you want more of this kind of thing, feel free to subscribe to my email newsletter, “When The Going Gets Weird,” which you can find at https://newsletter.mathewingram.com. (MI)