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My media habits: Kate McFarlane of Sassy Mama – ‘One of my son’s first 10 words was probably Google’

In a conversation with Mumbrella's Dean Carroll, Sassy Mama Singapore senior editor Kate McFarlane speaks of her love for pop culture and states why she thinks artificial intelligence cannot replace the charm of a good podcast

What are your must-read news sources you can’t live without on a daily basis, and why are those particular media titles so important to you?

“Every day starts with The New York Times mainly for news and politics and then Boston.com (the website of my hometown paper) for sports and more local news. During breakfast, I will usually scroll through Facebook to get a sense of what stories have developed overnight in the US.

“Pod Save America (which comes out twice a week) is my favourite podcast; I’ll listen to it when I’m driving or at the gym. The guys aren’t journalists but their insights on progressive issues and the dumpster fire that is American politics are vital.

“Their one-on-one interviews with Democratic presidential candidates are also the most informative I’ve come across and are well worth a listen for anyone who wants to get a feel for the candidates in more than a soundbite. 

“At night when it’s quiet (i.e. no children slapping my keyboard or trying to steal my iPad) I like to read The Atlantic, Vox and The New Yorker. Believe it or not, I don’t actually have ‘East Coast Liberal Elite’ tattooed on my forehead.

“Once or twice a day I might also check The Straits Times, The Guardian or the BBC for an international perspective. Oh, and for my job I probably follow about 20 different parenting sites and social media accounts. I’m kind of ADD but also a fast reader so I consume a lot of media.”

In terms of news consumption – do you prefer, print, television, radio, websites, newsletters, social networks, blogs, apps or something else entirely?

“Websites, social media and podcasts mainly (and a few particularly choice, media-oriented newsletters, of course). I follow some of my favourite sites and publications on Facebook and sometimes get to their articles that way. 

“How’s this for multifarious: I’m a total nerd about TV and pop culture and so I’m in some Facebook groups for fans of a few different podcasts. I’ll often read articles shared by people in those groups, too.”

Do you prefer long-form or short-form content?

“As someone who physically struggles to write less than 1,000 words for any given assignment, it would feel like a betrayal if I didn’t say long-form. Consider yourselves warned for the rest of this article, by the way.” 

Can you name your favourite journalist and set out what makes them great?

“There is no way I could name just one. But here are some of my can’t-miss writers.

Rebecca Traister (The Cut/NYMag): She’s just a brilliant writer and I love the feminist lens through which she frames news, politics and culture.

Rebecca Traister

Maggie Haberman (New York Times): Her ability to continuously gain access and repeatedly get the president to spill the tea is truly impressive. 

Joanna Robinson (Vanity Fair): If you like Game of Thrones, her insightful articles for VF are next level. Worth going into the vault for. 

Jia Tolentino (The New Yorker) and Rembert Browne (various): Every time either of them writes something I say: “Damn. I wish I’d written that.” I’m only barely a millennial but if they’re the voice of my generation, I’m cool with that. 

Alan Sepinwall (TV critic for Rolling Stone): Kind of a pioneer in terms of putting TV recaps online and realising people would want to break down shows episode-by-episode. He’s prolific, smart, and funny, and his reviews have never steered me wrong. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Not out there as much since he left The Atlantic but when he says something, I sit up and listen. His recent takedown of Mitch McConnell was spectacular.

Bill Simmons (The Ringer): Not really a journalist so much these days, but a multimedia visionary and kind of my hero. He got his start writing long, rambling articles on the Internet about Boston sports when print was still the dominant medium.

“He parlayed that into success at ESPN.com, came up with the brilliant 30 for 30 documentary series, and has since launched two great websites (now-defunct Grantland and The Ringer). He was also ahead of the curve when it came to podcasts; I think I subscribe to, like, 10 of The Ringers’s 30+ different pods.”

What piece of journalism has changed the game in recent times, in your view?

“No single piece but the arms race between The Washington Post and The New York Times to constantly outdo each other when it comes to exposing corruption and greed in the Trump orbit is truly something to behold. 

“David Fahrenthold from The Post warrants a special mention on that front, I think.” 

Are there any titles you have paid subscriptions to?

“The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and I occasionally steal my husband’s login for The Wall Street Journal and The Economist (and my parents’ for The Boston Globe). Shhh, don’t tell.”

In terms of films and shows, is your preference for terrestrial television or streaming platforms like Netflix?

“We cut the cord last year so it’s all about Netflix, iTunes, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and HBO Go. And we also have various apps to watch American sports leagues.” 

Are recommendation engines a good thing or do they cancel out the joy of serendipity in terms of discovering fresh content not aligned with your previous preferences?

“To be honest I barely pay attention to them; I generally take my cues from my favourite pop culture podcasts – The Watch, Pop Culture Happy Hour, and TV Talk Machine – and my fellow TV nerds in those aforementioned Facebook groups.”

What was the best film you saw of late – and can you describe why it made an impression on you?

“I can’t remember the last film I saw in a theatre, perhaps because comic book/superhero movies are the big gap in my pop culture tastes. 

“I really want to see ‘Book Smart’ but I am not sure it’s ever going to make it to Singapore. I recently watched ‘Always Be My Maybe’ on Netflix; Ali Wong and Randall Park are both just generally hilarious. 

“Plus, Keanu Reeves looms large in some of my earliest film memories (Babes in Toyland, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Parenthood), so I’m all in on the Keanussance. 

“Also, not a movie, but the best thing I’ve watched in a long while was season two of ‘Fleabag’ on Amazon. I was lukewarm on season one, but the way they play with the fourth wall and examine themes like faith, love, and family (all while being scandalously cheeky) is unlike anything else I can recall ever seeing.”

And what shows do you consider to be event TV, those programmes you just have to watch and can’t contemplate missing?

“Game of Thrones, of course. For those six weeks in April and May I basically had to stay off the Internet every Monday till my husband and I could watch it in the evenings. That can be tricky when you run a website. 

“Come September – when the NFL returns and my beloved Patriots begin their defence of yet another Super Bowl title – I’ll have to go back to ignoring the Internet until I can watch the games on Monday night as they air between 1am-5am Singapore time.”

In terms of devices, how do you access content most often – on mobile, desktop, tablet, laptop or television?

“I’m on my laptop for work all day, so you’ll usually find me writing and reading articles with about 20 tabs open in Chrome. In the mornings and at night before bed I’m on my iPad. I also like to watch things on it while running on the treadmill. 

“My husband and I will watch sports or other shows on TV for an hour or two after dinner. And then my phone just fills in all the gaps.”

How damaging is piracy and illegal downloads when it comes to the media and entertainment space?

“I don’t have much of an opinion on this one.”

And moving on, what’s been your favourite book in recent times?

“Hands-down the best book I’ve read in the past year was ‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi – it’s just beautifully written and every now and then I’ll still find myself thinking about it, and the tragedy and ongoing injustice of slavery, and I’ll just start to cry all over again.“I also enjoyed ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng; I had some major issues with a couple of the plot points, but it’s a compelling read and is actually set in my husband’s hometown, so I loved being able to picture all the places she described. And I can’t wait for the forthcoming Kerry Washington-Reese Witherspoon adaptation on Hulu. 

“The last book I read was ‘Women’s Work’ by the journalist Megan K. Stack, who recently moved to Singapore. Advocating for domestic helpers is a huge passion of ours at Sassy Mama so it was interesting learning more about how the system operates in China and India, and I think many of her observations and personal reckonings would resonate with any Western employer – they certainly did for me.” 

So Kindle or hard copy?

“For books? Always hard copy. I love being able to hold them in my hands, to physically turn the page, and more than that to look at a book on the shelf and instantly recall a plot point, or where I was when I first read it. 

“I grew up in a house overflowing with books and used to love pulling random things off the shelves when I was a child. We’re trying to foster the same for our kids; nothing makes me happier than when I find my five-year-old daughter curled up in a corner quietly looking at something new. 

“And our 21-month-old son is really good at pulling things off the shelves, so he’s halfway there.”

And now to music. How do you buy and consume music?

“I rarely buy music anymore; the only exception would be kids’ singles off iTunes (for instance, certain Daniel Tiger songs) that aren’t available on Spotify.Our kids are terrors when it comes to listening to music in the car; my husband and I frequently shake our heads at the fact that we grew up having to wait for tapes to rewind on long car trips. 

“Our children will shout out the name of the next song that they want, within one second of the previous one ending. Inevitably it will be on a different playlist, too. 

“For the most part we listen to Spotify; we have it linked up to our Google Home, and – this is so sad – probably one of my son’s first 10 words was ‘Google’ because he would stand there waving his arms and shouting “Google, bus” trying to get it play ‘Wheels on the Bus.’

“One of my most prized possessions is my giant black booklet of CDs that I’ve been cultivating since middle school. Once upon a time it was a real status symbol. Today it’s a time capsule that stops around 2005 – I laugh when I remember how earnestly I used to make CD mixes. Every now and then I’ll rotate in a few CDs to play in the car. Otherwise I’m afraid they might melt.”

Which musical artists appeal to your tastes right now?

“I’m so out of touch. I most enjoy listening to classic reggae and 90s alternative and hip-hop, but in terms of current stuff I tend to prefer rap and hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar, Drake, ASAP Rocky, Lizzo, and Migos are some current artists I like. Yet another reason I never listen to the radio in Singapore.”

Social networks: Hero or villain when it comes to giving you access to content?

“Hero, in that they expose me to so much and I get links and recommendations from all directions (and I clearly enjoy consuming a lot of content). And from a politics perspective, seeing what my acquaintances “on the other side” share and post about can be both interesting and informative/depressing, maddening, tear-inducing, etc.

“Villain, in that I hate that these networks clearly know everything about my life, no matter how many privacy controls I try to use. 

“For instance, the other day Facebook recommended a random video clip to me of The Beastie Boys playing ‘Sabotage’ on David Letterman in 1994. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever posted or liked anything about the Beastie Boys on Facebook – yet that song probably is an all-time fave. Of course I sat there and watched the video. Damn you, Facebook.”

And are social networks like Facebook and Twitter actually media companies these days in your view, even though that is something they deny – perhaps to avoid further regulation?

“Oh yes, absolutely. These are where people get their news from – certainly that’s the aspect of algorithms that scares me most. And they are often where people consume entertainment whether through Facebook Watch or YouTube. If that’s not media, what is?”

In the digital world, algorithms rather than humans are the media gatekeepers. Do you miss the old days when the likes of journalists, critics and broadcasters played that qualitative role, or have we simply evolved to a better quantitative system?

“As noted above, I definitely think there’s a scary aspect to algorithms giving people their news, but from a “qualitative” perspective there’s something quite interesting about the democratising effect of social media. 

“Surely it’s easier today to find coverage of any topic imaginable – and others who share your obscure interests – than in the past (for better or for worse, I suppose). 

“Isn’t that the connection/making the world smaller stuff that Zuckerberg et al love to sing about?

“As the editor of a website, analytics and algorithms certainly play a role in our editorial decisions, but I recently joked that if they were the only factor we might as well change the name of Sassy Mama to ‘Playgrounds and Stuff’ because we know that’s what consistently gets the most eyeballs. 

“But that’s really only a small piece of the parenting experience in Singapore; mothers also want to know about where to take their next family holiday, who the best pelvic floor experts are in Singapore – this is a very specialised thing that pretty much only postnatal women might be seeking out, but it’s so vital when that time comes. Or what to consider when it comes to choosing a preschool.”

Finally, what does the future hold for the media space in your view – will artificial intelligence and virtual personal assistants take over to the point where we just trust the machines to tell us what we want to consume, in terms of news and entertainment?

“I really hope not, otherwise I’m kinda screwed, huh? But seriously – and perhaps I’m being naïve and overly optimistic – while I think there will be a role for AI, whether it’s reporting news, or filtering content ruthlessly by analytics, I’d like to think that we still crave human connection. 

“I think that’s why Instagram Stories and weird Vine clips are so appealing, and why podcasts are doing so well. With a good podcast, it’s like you have a friend (or a few friends) sitting there chatting with you. I don’t think AI can replicate that – at least not yet.”

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