Most weekdays, by the time the clock strikes 6:30 a.m., I’ve broken my fast. My feast kicks off with a quick serving of Up First, a daily, audio news rundown from NPR, while I brush my teeth and feed my cats; next is a helping of The Daily, a longer weekday podcast from The New York Times, as I start my morning run. Then, if it’s a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I’ll round things off with Short Wave, NPR’s thrice-weekly science podcast. By the time I’m showered and at my desk, I’ve sampled the day’s first dishes of news. And I’ve whetted my appetite for more, just in time to open my email inbox—a veritable smorgasbord of newsletters, press releases, and breaking news alerts.
I can’t say when, exactly, I established this routine. But for several years, it’s been a crucial part of my media diet: the news I regularly ingest to keep my own journalistic palate prepped. “To be a good or a great writer, you also have to be a good or great reader,” says Mary-Rose Abraham, a multimedia journalist who covers agriculture, food systems, and the environment. Doing so helps ensure that you’re “keeping up with what’s already been covered in [a] story, what’s lacking, and what you need to look at next.” Staying on top of the news makes our own stories timelier; it can inspire new and interesting angles and provide pegs for ideas that have been lying dormant for months. Regular news consumption can also be a way for journalists to tap into new sources—and to take writerly inspiration from colleagues around the world.
The food metaphor is admittedly corny, but it’s also apt. As with any good diet, one based on media needs to be healthy: balanced, well portioned, and sustainable. Few writers will have much trouble finding appealing stories to pile onto their plate. The tough part is deciding what to skip—especially when the menu of options is so vast. Having a refined media palate isn’t just about distinguishing junk from quality, or even just about portion control. It’s also about having the flexibility and mindfulness to adjust your news consumption as your nutritional needs shift.
Building a Healthy Base
The best media diet for any reporter will depend on many factors—beat, audience, career stage, being freelance or on staff. But there are at least a few broad categories of staples that, when combined, can help sustain most reporters’ journalistic health.
First, it’s important to build a solid foundation with major outlets that can supply general news—mainstays that can reliably and expediently deliver the day’s biggest headlines. Jason Ukman, one of STAT’s managing editors, starts each day by skimming the headlines and top sections of stories on the homepages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe. Yanine Quiroz, who covers food, land, and nature for Carbon Brief, has a similar morning routine that includes major outlets, such as the Times and Bloomberg.
From there, different reporters will quickly splinter off onto their own dietary paths. Those who write for voicier publications with longer-form articles might find themselves gravitating toward outlets that carry a similar tang—Vice, The New Yorker, The Atlantic (where I’m a staff writer). Others will quickly flip through science-focused venues—Science News, Scientific American, New Scientist—to immediately home in on what nerdier sectors of the Internet might soon be chattering about.
For reporters who cover specific beats, trade and specialty publications, too, are a must. Ramin Skibba, a space writer at Wired, sifts through the short stories at Space.com and Space News; Abraham regularly trawls the webpages of Grist, Gastro Obscura, and Civil Eats, places that are “often looking into things that aren’t covered by so-called mainstream media, or the bigger players,” she says. Even more dimension can be added, Quiroz notes, by keeping tabs on small, local publications—which, for her, means perusing outlets in Mexico, where she lives.
Topics, too, can guide news consumption, rather than relying on specific publications alone. Some reporters set up Google Alerts; others use news aggregators and RSS (really simple syndication) readers, such as Feedly, Flipboard, and Inoreader, which compile pieces from around the web. The trick is finding keywords with the right amount of specificity, so the pings aren’t coming every three seconds—or three years.
In the same way that reporters can become aficionados of certain subfields of research, or specific publications, they can become regular readers of individual writers whose voice or style they love.
It doesn’t hurt, either, to regularly peruse the websites of scientific journals and sign up for press releases from academic institutions, professional science organizations, and government agencies that deal with data in your field. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, I wrote several quick-turnaround stories prompted in part by research featured in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
When streams of updates and auto-generated digests get overwhelming, hand-curated round-ups of recent news can be a vital substitute. Some reporters on the environment beat like Hot News, the daily newsletter from Climate Nexus. In my own work, I’ve found that the daily Global Health NOW newsletter from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is great at highlighting trending topics in the field of infectious disease. Newsletters written by academic experts can also offer thoughtful commentary on new data—a big reason I’ve become a loyal subscriber to Katelyn Jetelina’s Your Local Epidemiologist and Caitlin Rivers’s Force of Infection. Abraham also recommends subscribing to roundups and updates from journalistic associations, such as the Society for Environmental Journalists or the Association of Health Care Journalists, which often highlight work from their members.
Fresh, sharp takes on trending topics can also come from podcasts with expert hosts. Some of my best brainstorming sessions have come from regularly listening to specialized shows, such as This Week in Virology, which does deep dives into papers and virology-related news, or Maintenance Phase, which puts a skeptical lens on trending topics in food, fitness, and health.
And in the same way that reporters can become aficionados of certain subfields of research, or specific publications, they can become regular readers of individual writers whose voice or style they love—even if there’s little overlap with their own beat. Abraham, for instance, enjoys perusing great pieces and musing, “Oh, why did this writer write this lede?” Following individual reporters can even be a great gateway when you’re trying to get acquainted with unfamiliar topics on those writers’ beats—or, even, new places, if they happen to live somewhere you don’t. A great way to get to know a new part of the world is to “follow their journalists,” says Federico Kukso, a freelance science journalist based in Argentina.
Consuming the work of journalists outside your beat and geographic area keeps your palate a bit adventurous, too. Kukso also spices up his coverage by habitually visiting outlets based in other countries, including China and Russia. Reading those publications sometimes requires online translation, but the effort is worth it, because it can quickly break him out of the Western-centric, English-speaking bubble that science media often finds itself locked in.
Practicing Mindful Munching
If all of this sounds completely overwhelming, that’s more than understandable. For all that journalistic training can offer, “no one tells you what you have to do to follow the news,” Kukso says. It’s up to each individual to develop their own system—“to find order in chaos.”
In a lot of cases, establishing a healthy and maintainable media diet comes down to time management—and acknowledging one’s own limits. “These days, trying to keep up with the news is like drinking out of a fire hose,” Ukman says. “You sort of have to be at peace that you’re not going to read everything all the time.” Nor is that necessarily the goal. The media landscape is immense, and tradeoffs are to be expected. Writers who become choosy eaters will gain depth within their beats—even if that comes “at the expense of general news,” Ukman says. With that in mind, it’s good to occasionally take a leaf out of the general-assignment reporter’s book, too: less specialization, but more opportunity to sample a bite of almost everything at the buffet.
Sometimes, the trickiest part of establishing a healthy media diet isn’t really about the logistical hurdles of setting limits, but the psychological obstacle of maintaining those limits.
Drawing explicit lines around when you ingest the news can help with portion control. When I graze my media content throughout the day, sifting through my inbox at every spare moment, I sometimes feel as though I’m constantly falling behind. To avoid the doom-sifting, many reporters recommend breaking their media diets into carefully timed meals. Quiroz, who helps write Carbon Brief’s newsletter, Cropped, spends the first hour of every workday morning nibbling the news. “It’s one of the first things that I do,” she says. But once those sixty or so minutes are up, she generally moves on. Skibba, at Wired, feels similarly. By 9:30 or 10 a.m., he says, “I want to be doing my normal work.”
Journalists can also opt out of daily digests in favor of weekly ones to avoid getting pummeled with alerts. That system works well for Wendy Zukerman, the executive producer and host of Science Vs., from Spotify Studios. With daily publications, especially as of late, “I find it very difficult to separate the noise from what really has sticking power,” she says. Zukerman still frequently checks the website of New Scientist, where she used to work. Apart from that, though, weekly publications such as The Guardian Weekly suffice. These more manageable servings of information contain “all the news that you kind of need to know,” she says, especially for a podcast such as hers, which reports stories weeks or months ahead of when they’ll air. Even Ukman, who is frequently editing breaking health news, draws a line at receiving breaking news alerts, which can sometimes be more disruptive than helpful. Abstaining from those notifications also helps him power down his work brain once he’s no longer on the clock.
Reporters can even get selective within the pieces they deliberately choose to read. Not every full news plate has to be picked clean: Many journalists will skim the majority of articles they open, sometimes not going much past the headline and first few grafs. Often, that’s enough to get “a sense of what the news is about,” Quiroz says. In general, the more relevant a given article is to your beat, the deeper you’ll want to read. But there’s no hard-and-fast rule on when or how to skim—and it’s good to trust your gut. Abraham will only read a story from top to bottom if the text itself demands it: “if the writing is super compelling and it’s grabbing me at the end of every paragraph.”
When to Push the Plate Away
Sometimes, the trickiest part of establishing a healthy media diet isn’t really about the logistical hurdles of setting limits, but the psychological obstacle of maintaining those limits. Disha Shetty, an India-based science journalist covering environment, health, climate change, and women’s issues, recalls grappling with her own habits early in her career. In one of her first reporting jobs, the message from the higher-ups was loud and clear: “If you don’t like to just read news 24/7,” Shetty recalls, “then you’re not good enough to be a journalist.” It was a completely unsustainable way to approach her work, she says.
In the years since, Shetty has learned to let herself off the hook—and seen a concomitant maturation in her own work. She untethers herself from the news on the weekends and when on vacation and picks up novels instead. That sort of distance also spares her some of the waves of grief that can inundate writers as they spend months deep in the trenches reporting on tough topics such as chronic illness, sexual violence, or the impacts of climate change. As crucial as news is to the job of journalism, too much of it can also take an emotional toll. Now, Shetty tries to pay attention to “how I’m doing in life,” and tailors her news consumption accordingly, “to balance it out.”
That sort of malleability is key to keep in mind. As writers change outlets, editors, or areas of focus—or as they decide to prioritize different parts of their work-life balance—it’s healthy for their reading habits to shift in lockstep. When Skibba’s kids were younger, he says he read less news and resisted buying new subscriptions. And Shetty says she’s constantly refining what she reads based sometimes on recommendations she’s received, or on the stories she’s pursuing, but also on gut feeling—where her interests take her at the time.
It’s natural for some of these decisions—what to skip, when to call it quits—to come with a side helping of uncertainty or guilt.
There are even ways to stop yourself from sliding down the slippery slope that is consuming news via social media. Zukerman finds platforms such as Instagram and TikTok useful when searching for stories. Even so, she’ll often use only the official Science Vs. account on Instagram, for example, rather than her personal one, when she’s perusing on the job—a good way to keep the content at arm’s length.
It’s natural for some of these decisions—what to skip, when to call it quits—to come with a side helping of uncertainty or guilt: The choices are far from intuitive, and inevitably, great stories will go missed. But feeling a bit behind on the news isn’t a failure. In some cases, reading news stories a few days after the fact can even make for good fodder for a fresh take. Skibba was far from the first to write about NASA’s yearlong program that will house a small crew in an artificial structure, simulating a Mars habitat. But his eventual June 2023 piece “added some extra nuance” about the potential psychological toll of the mission that the first few quick hits missed, he says.
Frequent step-backs from the news aren’t just good for avoiding stress: They can also serve as reminders of the rich and surprising wellsprings from which the best stories arise. When Zukerman is on the hunt for fresh and zingy stories—ones that will actually tap into the pulse of what her listeners most want to hear—more news is sometimes the last thing she needs. “I actually try and get off my computer and walk around,” she says. For inspiration, she’ll venture into bookshops (remember those?) to scan the covers of women’s health and men’s health magazines, or she’ll lightly eavesdrop on conversations in pubs. “It’s more about getting out into the world,” Zukerman says, to hear gossip—which, once properly vetted, can be news in its rawest form—straight from the source. Some of the most satisfying stories, after all, come from unexpected places and invite us to explore new tastes—the ones we may have not even realized we were hungry for.
Katherine J. Wu is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a senior editor at The Open Notebook, and a senior producer for The Story Collider. She previously served as a science reporter for The New York Times. She won a Schmidt Award for Excellence in Science Communication in 2022, a Science in Society journalism award in 2021, and the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for Young Science Journalists in 2020. She has a PhD in microbiology from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineJWu.