How do you turn the flood of news and information into something useful? That’s what we try to do at Delve, and for our Wonk Lens series we ask smart people how they manage it. The Council of Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi is the first we’ll share here, and we’ll be posting similar interviews in the coming weeks. You can also check out the curated news channel we built based on Levi’s interests here, and find more expert channels in the smart, social news reader we built for energy professionals like you.
Michael Levi is of a new breed of policy wonks, as comfortable in the scrum of the Twittersphere as he is testifying in the halls of Congress. He’s a man accustomed to bridging worlds. Levi earned a Masters in Physics and a PhD in War Studies, a unique blend that led to a book on nuclear terrorism and a gig as a consultant to the TV drama 24. As spends his days immersed in research on the science, economics, and policy behind the core environmental challenges of our day. He blogs at CFR, and has written for the New York Times, Scientific American, and many more.
What are your go-to sources each morning? Who do you read and how do you do it?
I start out in the morning by scanning the last 15 or 30 minutes of my twitter feed to see what people are talking about and if there’s anything particularly interesting. Because of the people I follow, that covers energy and climate news, but it also covers broader foreign policy and economic policy. I also take a look at RealClearEnergy, an aggregator for energy-related articles – it’s usually pretty good. And I take an early look at Climate Progress, not always for the analysis but because it also does good aggregation.
Do you check in on any traditional media – newspapers in print or on the web?
I’m bad at checking in on those, at least outside the weekend. Around 9 am I’ll have a few specialist newsletters in my email – E&E news, ClimateWire, Politico’s Morning Energy, and I’ll flip through Politico’s Playbook for the broader political tone of what’s going on. Those will lead me to things that are being written in major media. At a few points in the day I’ll get bored and flip through the front page of the New York Times, but I don’t sit down with a print paper. I tried subscribing to the Times and the Journal a few years ago and I ended up with enormous stacks of paper. I already have too many stacks of paper.
How about on the academic side, any journals or think tanks?
Yes, I read a lot of those. You know it’s tricky now because the most interesting journals for foreign policy and international affairs have a substantial online confluence. But I make sure to read most of what’s in Foreign Affairs every month. I find it to be the best way to stay on top of smart arguments going on in foreign policy. I have some more academic journals that cross my desk regularly: American Political Science Review, International Organization, International Security, Science, Nature. And at least for the irregular ones, the quarterlies, I flip through to see if there’s anything interesting. With the weekly scientific ones – sometimes I’ll look, sometimes I won’t. And also for my field, Resources for the Future keeps up a blog feed that collects a lot of environment-related academic articles, World Bank papers in particular. Most of my day is focused on long-term research, so a lot of the way I come across deeper academic work is incidentally, because I need it for the research I’m doing.
Are there any tools you find particularly useful for finding, clipping or saving articles?
I’ve gone with different tools over time and I can never stay with them. I’m still an RSS feed person. I’ll try using Evernote and I’ll do it for a while, then I stop. I’ve tried – I can’t even remember the names now – various things that my iPad or iPhone have to save links for later and I rarely come back to them. No, I mean, my main tool for keeping track of these things is to have 30 chrome windows open and it doesn’t sit well with my computer, apparently. I use Outlook [for RSS]. I have 50-60 feeds running on the side now.
Do you find it overwhelming?
If I forget to look for a few days I’ll often just hit mark all as read and move on with my life. If you miss it for a few days, you have over 1,000 of them built up – you’re not going to go through them carefully. I have to shut it out to get a lot of work done. If I have a lot of writing to get done I won’t even look, I mean I may look at Twitter when I wake up in the morning but when I walk into the office I won’t look at any of that stuff for the first few hours.
What’s the connection for you between the real-time news cycle and your work? Has a news article ever sparked a research project or is that a separate process?
A persistent belief that shows up in the news but that might not be correct can help drive a research project. But it mostly runs the other way, the question being, how can I apply the understanding that I’ve gained in deeper long-term research to emerging issues and to issues where people need help making decisions. The other reason to stay on top of the news more broadly, besides that it’s interesting, is that everything happens in that broader context. There’s no use in pushing some great little idea on climate change when everyone is obsessed that the stock market has dropped 6%. So you need to know what’s going on in the rest of the world. Then frankly I like to know what’s going on in the rest of the world because I like to think that part of what distinguishes my work is that it’s not inward-focused, it’s about connecting the issues I work on with the bigger concerns that people and policymakers have.
Can you think of the last time a particular piece of news was useful to your research?
I think that the whole drumbeat of news over the last year on growing U.S. oil and gas production has sparked a good part of my research over that same period, because it’s clear that it’s something that people are thinking about constantly and it’s also clear that they really are at a loss of how to think about it, how to fit it into the broader story of what’s happening to the economy, with national security, and with the environment. So I’ve ended up doing a lot of work on that. Was that because of the trend or because of the news? It’s tough to know. But what I will find is often I’ll start spending time on a piece of research and I’ll convince myself that what I’m working on is uncontroversial or is already sorted out and then a piece of news will remind me that this is still something that people are fighting over and something where they really aren’t sure on the outcome.
I guess the other thing is that there’s a lot of technical work that happens in the field that I work on and it’s always good to get that technical story right, but it’s even more important when something moves out of the academic literature and into the popular narrative, because then you don’t have 2, 3, 4 years to really get it right. You need to make sure that the scientific debate and the academic debate is correct more promptly. That will sometimes convince me to put more of a priority on one thing versus another.
It’s no secret the traditional news media have struggled financially in recent years. What do you think of the health of foreign and energy journalism today?
Look, the amount of reporting on energy issues has gone up considerably in recent years. The amount of reporting on climate issues has ebbed and flowed. I think it’s a lot less consistent. People follow stories. Unfortunately when something bad is happening all the time it’s no longer a story; it’s just the background noise, which is a problem. I think that the traditional media is still incredibly important, particularly for busy people. People need some kind of validator, some kind of screen to help them decide what it is they’re going to pay attention to. In a world where anyone can contribute, people will go even more to the brand names. I used to be in the Physics world and when people started to post their articles on an open archive, people said it would democratize publishing. It turned out that people only read papers by famous authors because otherwise they had no idea if the papers were good or not. So it actually worked in the opposite direction. The brands these places have are worth a lot. I read everything critically, but I still often learn new things from these places. They have the resources that few people have to really go and dig into things. As to the quality of the reporting, it’s inconsistent. I think it’s inevitable, but I’ve certainly been frustrated with reporting in a variety of places. I think what can be different is now is that this kind of reporting kicks off a broader discussion. And that’s a really new phenomenon.