Techmeme is a semi-automated site that tracks the hottest conversations among tech blogs each day, with updates every five minutes. It's one of the most innovative efforts in news gathering today. In December, Techmeme hired its first human editor, freelance writer Megan McCarthy.
McCarthy tends the gears of Techmeme, makes sure the content on the site remains of high quality and helps ensure the inclusion of new and important voices. It sounds like an awesome job and one that has probably never existed before - a half woman, half robot, news gathering machine. How can you get your blog on Techmeme? What's in the future for the site? We asked Megan in the following interview.
The Techmeme Editor's Job Each Day
Marshall Kirkpatrick: What do you do all day? I imagine you standing next to one of the most awesome news discovery machines available, tending it, making sure it keeps running smoothly, and looking out beyond its reaches to feed it things it hasn't gotten to yet itself. Is that an accurate picture?
Megan McCarthy: That is fairly accurate, actually. I make sure that the news on Techmeme represents an accurate, current, and full overview of what's happening in technology right now. So, that's trimming back stories that aren't relevant, adding in viewpoints that ought to be heard, etc.
Marshall: Can you tell us a little bit about your personal background?
Megan: My personal background is a little varied. Prior to [writing for] Valleywag, I bounced around a few different jobs and places and never really found a niche. I lived in Hawaii for a few years, had various office drone jobs and other gigs to pay the bills (Nanny, bartender, coffee server). But I loved following technology and reading about what was happening in silicon valley - and I've been a news junkie since I was young.
News Selection and Twitter Tips on Techmeme
Marshall: So, did your coming on board "break" the "objectivity" of the site?
Megan: Techmeme is biased and has been so for a while. If you read Gabe's post announcing the addition of an editor, he makes that point.
What do you think, though? What changes have you noticed since I joined?
Marshall: I have noticed no changes to story selection, perhaps less wonky stuff. I've always considered Techmeme a very reliable source of news and I think you're doing a good job continuing that tradition - but there were certainly some people who grumbled about the human touch being formally introduced, an editor.
Megan: I think some of those people might grumble about anything.
Marshall: How can new bloggers get indexed on Techmeme?
Megan: We just introduced a program where people can tip relevant posts to us through Twitter. Anyone can tip any post they think is relevant to us.
Marshall: How is the new Twitter tips program working out? I see a lot of stories go up with thanks to Twitter, quite a lot - is it changing the face of the site substantially? Changing the content?
I see a handful of people getting thanks over and again, I imagine there's limited participation so far but how does the algorithm determine whose tips to accept and whose not to?
Also, a lot of people are sending tips regarding their own stories - is that ok? Even mainstream media outlets.
Megan: I don't think it's changing the content overall. Many of the stories that are tipped are ones which are worthy of a Techmeme headline. Not everything that gets tipped to us gets on the site. There are two situations that I can think of where the tip program does affect the content: It can help surface breaking stories faster, and if there are two similar stories from different outlets and someone cares enough to tip a certain one, that will probably effect which one ends up as a headline on Techmeme.
As for people tipping their own stories... personally I'm not completely opposed to it. If a writer has a breaking story that he or she wants to let us know right away, that's a good way to do it. But, they should keep in mind that their twitter handle will be credited with tipping us to the story. If "Thanks: Marshall" showed up next to every Techmeme headline you get, people might put two and two together and think that you really like your work.
To my knowledge, the identity of the person tipping the story has no effect on whether or not it will show up on the page. It's about the post itself.
Marshall: Well, if shame and loads of people saying "you're an f*ing jackass" was sufficient deterrent to anti-social behavior in social media, then...[indecipherable, record of this part of the conversation lost forever.]
Megan: Ha. Is he though?
Marshall: Oh I'm sure he is. ANYWAY. Is accuracy taken into account on Techmeme?
Megan: Accuracy is absolutely taken into account on Techmeme. That's one of my goals, anyway. If there's a post which has a lot of buzz around it, which turns out not to be true...
Marshall: What does that look like? Are you like "Steve Jobs is NOT out at Apple, I don't believe those reports! Story...gone!"
Megan: Or, a story that says "Steve Jobs NOT out at Apple" gets published next to the earlier, erroneous rumor.
Marshall: Then you yank the false story?
Megan: Either yank it or surround it with stories pointing out *why* it's false. Sometimes the false rumor becomes a story itself and yanking it can be jarring. We want our readers to be able to visit the site and know what's going on in technology - to know what people are talking about. The earlier rumor would probably be replaced as the top story by one with the correct information, but yanking it without giving our readers full context of the overall arc might be a bit jarring.
Marshall: You have to be reading a lot of these stories in great detail. What time does your work day start and end?
Megan: I start around 7:30ish and end later than that. News never stops!
The Future of Techmeme and Other Aggregators
Marshall: So, everyone wants to be an aggregator these days. All the young kids are like "mommy, I'm going to grow up to find recommended stories for an online news publisher."
What kinds of things do you foresee becoming points of leverage for content aggregators and news discovers in the future?
Megan: I think a reliable real-time web is going to have the greatest impact on aggregation services. I'd love to be able to see stories from sites as they're published, without a lag.
I hope that quality, accurate, and speedy stories get rewarded by receiving more attention - and that new voices are discovered and make the media chorus sound fuller and stronger.
You were asking me about my electric sheep dreams.
Marshall: Are you a cyborg?
Megan: Depends on my mood.
Marshall: At least between 7am and 7pm?
Megan: That sounds about right. This is super-nerdy, but reading an overwhelming amount of news is something that I rather enjoy doing.
Thanks to Megan McCarthy and Techmeme for doing this interview and doing the things they do each day - help us find the hottest conversation in technology. We appreciate it. You can find Megan on Twitter as well. Photo at top by Scott Beale