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.
Tried and True
(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.
- Mobile version
- Custom Startpage
- Manage e-mail subscriptions
- Saved searches deliver future articles matching your key words and phrases
- Most popular lists show the days hot topics
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.