After talking to beat reporters about how they use RSS to research and report their beats, it seemed appropriate to go a step further and look at some of the technical how.
No, I’m not going to try to explain how a feed is tracked in terms my mother would understand. Instead, let’s look at some different RSS readers and some more recent players in RSS-land.
Perhaps one of the first RSS readers came from one of the fathers of RSS: Dave Winer. He wrote it in 1999 and called it News River. This year, he started working on a new version, which would “incorporate all that we had learned about RSS aggregation in the last ten years, and combine it with several technologies that had gotten established since we began,” as described on the River2 website.
Winer’s reader is based on the concept of the “River of News.”
He describes this style of news reading on one of his websites, ReallySimpleSyndication:
Instead of having to hunt for new stories by clicking on the titles of feeds, you just view the page of new stuff and scroll through it. It’s like sitting on the bank of a river, watching the boats go by. If you miss one, no big deal. You can even make the river flow backward by moving the scollbar up. To me, this more approximates the way I read a print newspaper, actually it’s the way I wish I could read a print newspaper — instead of having to go to the stories, they come to me. This makes it easier for me to use my brain’s powerful scanning mechanism. It’s faster, I can subscribe to more, and my fingers do less work.
Sounds like Twitter to me.
River2 doesn’t have most of the features we see in other feed readers. You can’t River2 makes it easy to share a link on Twitter, see news items in reverse-chronological order, add new feeds and reading lists (more on reading lists in a minute), download podcasts or force a scan of your feeds.
One thing River2 does that most other readers do not is reading lists. To put it in simple terms, subscribing to a reading list (just an OPML file) is like following someone’s list on Twitter. You are not following the individual people on that list, but the list itself, so that any changes the author makes will be reflected in what you see.
This struck me as immediately useful for journalists, especially beat reporting. A reporter covering fashion in Los Angeles could share reading lists with a counterpart in New York City. Instead of sharing individual articles, you share everything that you add to the list.
Another feature that River2 provides is support for RSSCloud. RSSCloud is an addition to RSS that means that if you are subscribed to feeds that are Cloud-enabled (recently, WordPress plugins have been released to do this, and all WordPress.com RSS feeds are Cloud-enabled) you will receive updates from those feeds in almost real-time. Very few other readers are supporting RSSCloud, and I’ll go into that a little more later.
River2 runs on a local server on your computer or can be set up on Amazon’s EC2 servers.
I wanted to interview Winer about RSS and River2, but he told me he doesn’t do interviews. Instead, I emailed him some questions and he was kind enough to respond in a mini-podcast.
(Full disclosure: I use Google Reader myself)
Google Reader is a free, Web-based RSS reader.
One of the most powerful aspects of Google Reader is the search capability. Find new sites to follow or search your own archives for an older article.
The service integrates nicely with other Google services, which makes its sharing features especially robust: anyone in your Gmail address book who uses Google Reader can share and comment on articles with you. If you want to share outside of Google, you can also share to most social media sites or create your own public page of shared items.
Away from your computer, Google Reader has been optimized for any Web-enabled phone.
Bloglines has been around for what seems like forever and was one of the first popular RSS readers.
It may not be as feature-filled as Google Reader, but sometimes simple is better.
A new RSS reader, Fever is a Web-based application that you host on your own server. It costs $30 to download, so I asked Andrew Spittle, a journalist who mentioned Fever to me on Twitter, to give me the run-down.
The Hot lists is created by analyzing links, not content, which poses “interesting ramifications for large news sites that mostly don’t link at all within their posts,” Spittle said. “Tech blogs are great to power the recommendation engine (lots of links within post) mass media sites, not so much.”
LazyFeed is not as RSS reader or aggregator. Instead of subscribing to RSS feeds, users enter topics of interest. LazyFeed tracks blog posts by topic and notifies users in real time when new posts are available. The updates are handled really elegantly, especially for something that updates so constantly!
PostRank is a ranking system that uses social engagement to rank any kind of online content.
Engagement is measured by “analyzing the types and frequency of an audience’s interaction with online content.”
One of the ways PostRank can be really useful is helping to cut down on that “information overload.” Say you subscribe to an RSS feed from Google News for the Bronx, in New York City. Some of the articles in that feed will be completely useless and uninteresting. PostRank can help you filter those out based on how people engage with the information.
Feedly is a Firefox extension that organizes your RSS feeds from Google Reader into a magazine format. You can browse through categories and have all your read items sync back to Reader. You can also get tabs for your Twitter friends and customized layout, item sharing, and other features. Feedly is a free download, works wherever Firefox does.
Collected helps you gather feeds and other sources of information into collections that you can share with others (reading lists!). You can export these collections to other feed readers or keep track on the Collected website.
A 2005 article using data from FeedBurner (now owned by Google, FeedBurner helps standardize feeds and adds some pretty useful features and statistics), to look at the high fragmentation of feed readers (no one reader had more than 20% of the total number of feeds).
A 2007 article, again using data from FeedBurner, which showed how Google Reader had taken the lead.
LifeHacker, a popular productivity blog, did a poll last year which also showed preference for Google Reader.
So I ran the question by Twitter and Facebook (yeah, I know, real scientific). I asked journalists what feed reader they used and why. The results (out of 20 responses) were overwhelmingly in favor of Google Reader.
The most frequent reasons for using Google Reader were portability, cost and sharing features.
This post sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
RSS is an incredibly useful way for journalists to keep track of beats by watching what is being published online, whether on news sites, blogs, Twitter, saved Google search terms, etc.
I spoke to three journalists about how they use RSS for research and reporting. They also each gave one really good tip for diving into RSS.
For those unfamiliar with RSS, Wikipedia has this to say about RSS:
RSS (most commonly expanded as “Really Simple Syndication” but sometimes “Rich Site Summary”) is a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works—such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video—in a standardized format. Web feeds benefit publishers by letting them syndicate content automatically. They benefit readers who want to subscribe to timely updates from favored websites or to aggregate feeds from many sites into one place. RSS feeds can be read using software called an “RSS reader”, “feed reader”, or “aggregator”, which can be web-based, desktop-based, or mobile-device-based.
Eric Berger has been a reporter at the Houston Chronicle for 10 years and has been covering science for the last eight years. He has been blogging about science since 2005, creating a community to discuss science at SciGuy.
“When I first started blogging I found science blogs and used RSS as a means to keep track of the flow of information,” Berger said. “It’s too difficult and time-consuming to visit 100 blogs a day.”
Berger uses Bloglines, a popular RSS feed reader, to follow around 80 Web sites and blogs. He estimates seeing 300 new items a day.
“Back in the dark ages (five -six years ago), if I was working on a story I might be solely focused on that and not seeing what else what happening in science,” Berger said. “Now it’s impossible to escape that.”
He follows scientists of various disciplines, so he can keep track of various scientific communities. He also collects news releases via RSS, which sometimes turn into blog entries.
“If that strikes a chord in the community, then you can spin it into a story for the newspaper,” he said.
“Just experiment with it [RSS] and put new feeds in and don’t be afraid to add or delete feeds. Your feed reader shouldn’t be static, your list of feeds should fluctuate with what you’re working on.”
David Brauer covers media and occasionally politics for MinnPost.com.
Using RSS became a critical part of Brauer’s job in March of 2008, when he started writing a aggregated morning briefing for MinnPost.com.
“You have to make sure to pay attention to local news sources,” Brauer said. “The only way to do it is with RSS. RSS makes it very efficient to know what’s going on in the area I cover.”
Brauer no longer does the morning briefing, but RSS has remained vital in more general work. He is subscribed to 138 feeds in Google Reader, primarily local media feeds such as public radio, tv stations, alt weeklies and of course, the local newspapers.
“It’s one of the tools I use most as a reporter. RSS and Twitter,” he said. “RSS is good for checking things I already know to check; Twitter is good for finding things I wouldn’t have known to follow.”
His feeds are organized with 24 tags, categorizing feeds into sections such as sports, tech, big, little and suburban, public radio, local aggregators, local blogs, local papers, college journalists, national and politics.
“I see over 1,000 new items a day, but experienced users know you can just mark all items as read and move on,” Brauer said. “Be somewhat aware of balance so you don’t spend all day in RSS.”
Brauer suggests that journalists look into the sync features offered by many RSS readers, and to make sure that your RSS reader of choice is available for multiple platforms. (Google Reader has Web and mobile versions that sync.)
Sean Blanda is an editor at Vital Business Media and a co-founder of Technically Philly.
Blanda started using RSS around 2005, with Bloglines.
“It was coolest thing in the world that I didn’t have to put up with email and could still get content sent to me,” he said. “When I figured out you could get feeds of Google Alerts (and now Twitter mentions) it really spiraled out of control.”
Most of his ideas for stories at Vital come from media news feeds he gathers. He also runs Technically Philly part time and uses RSS to gather information quickly and get a large cross-section of sources.
“Our readership is very active on social media and blogging, so I have alerts for people’s names, companies, locations in Philadelphia, etc.”
Blanda uses Google Reader instead of Bloglines now, attracted by the social tools Google has been adding recently. Users can follow friends, share stories and comment on content together.
“I can see what my friends think is important too,” he said. “Most of my college newsroom was using Google Reader and it became a better way to stay in touch and shoot story ideas back and forth.”
He keeps 377 subscriptions organized by purpose, so for Vital he has folders by industry and for Technically Philly he sorts by beat and general news.
“I check all of the feeds related to my job everyday, every story,” Blanda said. “The other stuff, I get to it when I can, if not, no big deal. And sometimes I declare bankruptcy and mark all as read.”
Blanda can’t estimate how many news items he gets in a day: “It [Google Reader] always says 1000+ (unread items). I’d say I check around 500-600 a day.”
“My one tip would either be to get other people on your beat to share on Google Reader or to not forget Yahoo Pipes as a way to filter info…something I haven’t taken enough advantage of. With enough work you could always be sure to get relevant information.”
Do you use RSS to research and report? How do you organize your feeds and fight information overload? What creative uses do you put RSS to? Can you offer other tips?
This post sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
At most news organizations, sports and entertainment blogs rule the roost, but at The Sacramento Bee, Jon Ortiz has been able to take a blog about state workers and their issues to the top.
After spending several months at the top, Orti’z beatblog The State Worker, is currently the third most popular blog at the Bee. With football season ramping back up, the Bee’s 49ers blog rose to number one. The Bee’s crime blog rose to number two on the strength of a permanent link from Yahoo!
It’s impressive and rare to see a serious blog like The State Worker consistently one of the top blogs at a major metro newspaper in terms of page views and unique visitors. Ortiz said the 16-month-old blog has resonated with users because engaging users has become a cornerstone of how Ortiz approaches his job.
Many journalists have started blogging, with varying degrees of success. Many of these journalists are approaching blogging like writing newspaper stories. Ortiz said this approach won’t yield much success.
“I think there is a whole generation of journalists struggling with that,” he said. “They want blogs to be moment-to-moment versions of print, and they’re just not.”
Other journalists have taken to adding opinions to their blog posts and writing in a more informal style. But that’s not the key to being a good blogger either. Good blogging is about building community, and engaging users is one of the best ways to do that.
Ortiz said any good blogger has to make himself read his users comments. In the comments, bloggers can find tips, corrections, story ideas and more, all of which can make a journalists job much easier. Ortiz has a regular feature dubbed “blog backs,” where he takes corrections, suggestions and criticims from users and posts them.
“You just really get into the mind of your most arudent users,” Ortiz said about reading comments. “The percentage of commenters to users is less than one percent. Commenters are probably your most passionate users — often the most knowledgeable.”
Ortiz said reading and responding to commenters is a great way to tap into the expertise of your most knowledgeable readers. These most knowledgeable users are the ones who can become future sources for stories and are the people who are pushing bloggers to become better. Ortiz also finds future sources through e-mail and said that responding to user e-mail is an important way to build a blog.
Ortiz has found that people who e-mail him, rather than post comments on his blog, are more likely to use their real names and be willing to go on the record for stories and blog posts (Ortiz writes for both print and the Web). If Ortiz ignored e-mails, he would have lost out on a lot of valuable, on the record sources.
But Ortiz takes e-mails a step further. He often gets thoughtful comments and stories of how new government policies are affecting state workers from users that he shares with his readers. Ortiz said these blog posts that originate as e-mails from users are some of his most popular posts.
Originally Ortiz would ask users if he could use their e-mails on his blog, but now many people e-mail him asking if he’ll consider posting their e-mails. Many of these e-mails share personal stories that help add a lot of color to Ortiz’s blog. This blog post, for instance, contains two e-mails from state workers discussing how furloughs have impacted their lives and abilities to pay their bills.
Users are now even CCing Ortiz on e-mails they send to politicians and government offices. Not only do these e-mails tell stories that Ortiz may not have been able to get otherwise, but they also provide a lot of traffic to his blog without a lot of work. All Ortiz had to do was engage his users, and they began responding back.
Between Ortiz’s beatblog, column and print stories, he reaches quite a few state workers in California. He estimates his beatblog alone reaches a third of state workers. With all those knowledgeable readers, Ortiz would be a fool to ignore their expertise.
“It’s me and nearly half of a million of them,” he said. “I would be a fool to think that I could ever surpass the knowledge of that collective audience. It’s just not going to happen. I can either embrace that realization and try to leverage my points of contact or I can just try to continue telling people what they generally already know, that’s not very helpful.”
If Ortiz’s users are so knowledgeable, why do they even need him or his blog? Because The State Worker has such a big reach with state workers, Ortiz can get the governor and government to answer questions, whereas most of Ortiz’s readers can’t. And because Ortiz gets those answers, he has built a very loyal following.
When Ortiz pitched the idea for this blog to editors, he said he wanted to change how the Bee covered state workers. Instead of just writing down what the governor said at a press conference or doing a write up of a new law or policy, Ortiz would report on new laws, for instance, while also sharing the stories of how these laws and polices affect state workers. The only way to really do that well was to actively engage with state workers, and that’s what Ortiz has done.
This post sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
GothamSchools, like most news Web sites, serves multiple audiences: one part loyal readers and insiders and another part casual readers. But does the same kinds of content appeal to both of these audiences?
Regular readers are much more knowledgeable about a beat and some of these readers are even experts. The kind of content that appeals to these people is much different than drive-by readers, who may be new to an issue. These differing audiences with differing expectations and knowledge levels have led editors at GothamSchools to develop different kinds of content to appeal to each audience.
GothamSchools attracts a lot of insiders in the New York City education scene: teachers, principals, parents, education policy makers, other education journalists, etc. This audience is very knowledgeable and they’re coming to GothamSchools for the latest information on New York City schools. These people don’t need to wait until the dust has settled around a story; they’re fine with learning tidbits along the way.
For this segment of the audience, GothamSchools has short blog posts under the heading “Margin notes” that break news, report a story as its unfolding, excerpt another blog, give thoughts from someone in the education community, link to content around the Web and more. These blog posts can either help tell more about a previously reported story or they can help tell tidbits as a story begins to take shape. This is content, however, that most likely won’t appeal to casual readers and may even confuse some.
These posts don’t have to identify everyone because insiders know who the players are. These posts may also crowdsource and solicit user suggestion. GothamSchools’ editors view these blog posts as a place to get users involved with reporting.
“When we’re tapping into our insider pool, that’s a blog post,” writer and editor Elizabeth Green said.
On the other hand, most casual readers would be lost if they just stumbled upon a short blog post that didn’t contain any background information or identify all key players. For this audience, GothamSchools offers longer content that is written much like a newspaper story. These pieces are thoroughly reported, involve talking to lots of sources and never contain information from one side of an issue. These stories are self contained and don’t rely on other GothamSchools content to tell a larger story.
These stories serve regular readers fine, but they’re more aimed at casual and drive-by readers. A parent who may have received a link in her e-mail would benefit much more from a thorough, self-contained piece than from a short blog post that excerpts another blog or just has a tidbit about an issue.
“We’re certainly a niche site, but we have a lot of general readers,” Green said about GothamSchools ability to appeal to casual users.
This may seem like arguing semantics. How do readers even know which content is aimed at them? GothamSchools recently rolled out a new visual design that indents blog posts from the rest of the page and puts a double carrot, >>, next to these posts. By having a visual way of differentiating between stories and blog posts, GothamSchools is making it easier for readers to see which kind of content they are viewing.
Green believes that it is important to make it clear to readers when GothamSchools is reporting a story versus when it has a completed reporting story. For instance, editors may have information from one side of a story (a principal on budget cuts, for instance) and want to get that out there, but editors don’t want readers thinking that’s the whole story.
“I don’t think it’s fair to put a full story out there with information only from one side,” Green said.
In fact, sources became confused by the different kinds of content that GothamSchools offered and some even accused GothamSchools of being “just some rag,” before they realized that GothamSchools offered in-depth content to go along with short blog posts. Editors and writers were having issues with these sources who didn’t understand the difference between a blog post and a fully-reported story. Editors are hoping this new visual design will help sources realize what’s a fully-reported story and what’s a blog post that may contain only one viewpoint.
Green and other editors debated the merits of this change. There were concerns that users would not get the distinction, but so far users and sources have been receptive to the changes. Editors wrote a blog post detailing this change and others that helped users understand what was happening.
The blog posts and stories work hand in hand though. As a story is unfolding, writers and editors will file blog posts with new tidbits, links to what else has been reported, thoughts from insiders and more. After a story settles and has been thoroughly reported, editors will go back and write a complete story that will sum things up for regular readers, while also telling a complete story for casual readers.
“It’s a balance of giving a good first draft of history and with being rigorous,” Green said.
David Cohn recently expanded his community funded reporting project Spot.Us to Los Angeles. Cohn sat down with BeatBlogging.Org and discussed his plans to expand to more markets, his advice for those planning on applying to the Knight News Challenge (where the money for Spot.Us came from) and other thoughts on Spot.Us.
me: Spot.Us recently expanded. What has been the biggest challenge with expanding Spot.Us beyond the Bay Area?
David: A few things. I think the main thing is making sure that we are in a position to expand even more without partnering with an organization like USC. It’s great that we are working with them — and that we will have somebody who will play my role down south — but in the end, the site needs to be able to scale via technology, not people. Of course there will always be people involved (the reporters), but we are not a news organization. And surprisingly that is difficult for some to understand. The best way we can do that is by NOT scaling up our staff.
me: Why does technology, not staff make more sense for the Spot.Us model?
David: If we are in five cities am I going to hire five local managing editors? Especially when in those cities some pitches might have other editorial sponsors (local news orgs). In the end, we are a platform for journalism but not a journalism organization ourselves. It would be like asking why WordPress doesn’t have editors who work with all the bloggers of a certain topic. Why would Spot.Us have an editor who works with a local region? We want projects to have an editorial process — and we need to make it transparent whether or not a project has a news organization that is an editorial sponsor or if it’s a truly independent reporter — but it shouldn’t be our place to then force the independents into “our” editorial structure. It is just our place to make sure the public knows and understands that it’s an independent reporter that they would be supporting.
me: How important is USC to allowing Spot.Us to transition to a new market?
David: At this point in time — very important. My hope is that with a little more time organizations like USC will be less critical. But they provide an “in” to the journalism community. I have made inroads here in the Bay. but I have no connections in LA. It also provides some journalistic credibility that I don’t have (some people still look at Spot.Us as a cute project of a young kid).
me: Obviously, you’re going to concentrate on expanding to LA first, but have there been discussions about expanding to other markets?
David: Yes. I’m looking at lots of different cities. Somewhere in Texas, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Miami, etc. Basically major metro markets.
me: How much does the existing media landscape impact that decision? DC and New York are pretty well served, while Chicago has its two main news outlets in bankruptcy.
David: It does come to mind. For example everyone keeps asking me when I’m going to be in NY or why I’m not already. In truth, the media scene in NY is a rat race. And my goal isn’t to do national horse-race stuff. I think there is this notion that small is bad. I disagree. There is so much talk about journalists as innovative entrepreneurs but not enough about journalists as small business owner entrepreneurs. So I want to examine and make sure we aren’t going someplace that is saturated, but rather that is also a place that has potential partners and a vibrant online community.
me: You said that you aren’t looking to have a managing editor for each market and that you want the technology to scale, but do you envision hiring some more staff if you move into several new markets? If so, what would their roles be?
David: If anything, I would want to hire more tech people (programmers). After that, maybe a marketer (I have an idea for reverse advertising that I hope to alpha in a few weeks — not really sure what to call it yet or how to describe it, but it’ll be cool. If it works, we will be giving our advertising budget to the public, and we will need to start selling advertising.
me: Speaking of programmers, you just wrote a post about good, fast and cheap Web development and how you can’t have all three. What’s your advice for hiring Web developers for people applying to the Knight News Challenge?
David: if you win the Knight Challenge go for Good and Fast. Make sure you know what you are doing in that “fast” time period or you’ll ruin it. But it seems to me (and this is what I did) that I already just won the lottery. I got to play with other people’s money. So rather than try and cut corners on development, I cut corners on other things (pay for myself), and I built a site that did exactly what I wanted it to do for the launch. The phase I’m in now is more middle of the road….. but I don’t regret doing the good and fast route to start. When you look at some of the other Knight News projects Spot.Ss has done better than others (not to point fingers), and I think it is in part because I recognized I couldn’t get all three. If you try for all three, it’s like going to0 fast in a three-legged race.
me: I’ve talked to people who have received grants from various foundations and many of them don’t really get how Web development works. They are surprised by the costs and time needed. Do you have suggestions for how to get educated on Web development?
David: I totally agree. I’ve talked to a lot of the same people and that’s kinda who that post was about. If you don’t know about Web dev at all, be aware that you’ll have to make this choice: good, fast or cheap. On how to get educated: talk to as many developers as possible in as many programming languages, frameworks as possible. In the end you’ll find there is no secret technology that will meet all your needs. You should hire the developer that is best for you — not based on the technology that you heard will do it for you (Drupal Kool-Aid or Ruby-Kool-Aid, etc).
me: From an organizational perspective, how is Spot.Us doing? When your grant runs out, will Spot.Us be able to be supported?
David:: That is an excellent question. In truth — I don’t know. But that’s better than being able to say “no” without a doubt 😉 I like to joke that “considering all the things that could go wrong — we are doing fantastic.” No group with an axe to grind has taken over nonprofit media with this method 😉 As you said, the problem is actually the opposite; it’s hard to get the public to see a value and donate to journalism. But I’m fighting the good fight and I still make a promise to report back everything I learn as honestly and openly as I can.
me: Has the economy had an impact on Spot.Us?
David: Hard to know. We launched in November of 2008. The economy blast happened in November of 2008. Didn’t really get to experience too much before that. If I were a betting man — I’d say yes. But there is no way to prove that.
me: Switching from Spot.Us to the News Challenge, what advice would you give people applying this year?
David: Be bold…… Make sure you focus on the three things Knight is looking for: 1. local (so many that apply are not local) 2. digital innovation 3. Open source. Other than those three restrictions — go with your craziest ideas.
In fact, I argue the crazier the better.
Women make up the majority of users on most social media sites, according to Information is Beautiful.
Here are some popular social networks with a majority of users being female:
YouTube and LinkedIn have an equal ratio of males to female. Digg is the only major social network that is heavily skewed towards males, with 64 percent of users being male.
I have a lot of theories as to why there are more females on social media than men but nothing concrete. It’s clearly important, however, to understand the demographics of each social network, and news organizations — especially newspapers — have struggled for years to attract as many female readers/users as they do with males. Creating more social products can only help attract more females to news products.
Unique visitors can be very misleading, especially since so many Web users are drive by users that stop by to view one Web page, before quickly going elsewhere.
What’s more important is how we engage with our users. Drive by users aren’t worth nearly as much to advertisers (or to content producers) as dedicated users. Try this statistic on for good measure:
Which one of those users is more valuable? Obviously, Facebook users are much more dedicated users than NYTimes.com users. Facebook is also getting less drive by users, and drive by users aren’t that valuable. NYTimes.com is one of the better journalism sites out there, and it does fairly well — as far as news sites are concerned — with time spent per user per month.
But news sites — and most Web sites — can learn a lot from leading social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is continually adding more features to make Facebook sticker: chat, applications (popular games like Farmville are making the site very sticky), the news feed, etc. In fact, time spent on Facebook has soared 699 percent since April 2008.
News organizations need to figure out how to grok what leading social networks are doing, because news Web sites need to get stickier. Clearly, people want to be social. News organizations need to embrace being social and start engaging their users better. News has to become a conversation.
Getting more users is good, but getting more engagement out of each user is better.