The explosion of weblogs and niche news sites poses a problem for any info-warrior: Who the heck has time to read all this stuff?
Well, here's one possible solution: news readers -- a new crop of software programs that fetch updated dispatches from your favorite online writers, bloggers or news outfits.
Instead of the hunt and peck of Web surfing, you can download or buy a small program that turns your computer into a voracious media hub, letting you snag headlines and news updates as if you were commanding the anchor desk at CNN.
The programs, which are just now moving out of the techie world into the mainstream, come in a variety of shapes and flavors: NewzCrawler (PC), AmphetaDesk (cross-platform), Radio Userland (PC or Mac), NetNewsWire (Mac), and others. Look beneath the hood and they're all powered by XML, a souped-up form of HTML. The programs check each site to see if they contain RSS (Rich Site Summary) tags, a set of HTML-like instructions for sharing news.
Here's how it works. You fire up one of the news readers (also called news aggregators), subscribe to certain sites from a directory of thousands of choices -- say, BBC Online, ESPN, Salon, the Chippewa (Wis.) Herald and Bangkok News -- and bingo, you're in business. Whenever you sign on, a directory pane lets you see the most recent updates for each channel you've subscribed to. Within each channel you'll typically see a half dozen headlines and perhaps a summary, the entire item, and occasionally an accompanying photo. Want to dive in further? Click on a link and you're transported directly to the source's Web site. Some programs run through a Web browser, others through a standalone program. Most are free.
The original way of using news aggregators, which seems to be quickly falling out of favor, involves assembling a personalized page of links on a remote site. Netscape helped pioneer this -- and, indeed, engineered the earliest version of RSS in 1999 as a way for users to add news channels to its My Netscape portal. Today, sites like Fyuze and FreshNews have piggybacked on the news aggregation phenomenon.
But most users simply subscribe to a news feed by clicking on those little orange XML rectangles sprouting up on thousands of weblogs. You can also find thousands of other feeds by exploring Syndic8 or NewsIsFree.
No, this isn't The Next Big Thing, and no, it won't make Web browsing obsolete. But from a news publication's vantage point, RSS allows a news site to instantly syndicate its content without any third parties involved. Internet news feeds give news organizations another way to
reach that most elusive of creatures: the wired, tech-savvy professional. And you can bet that within a year or so, students will be latching onto RSS subscriptions in a big way.
The Christian Science Monitor has been at the forefront of the news industry in embracing news readers, making summaries available of its technology, books, commentary and other sections and offering an easy-to-understand primer on RSS for newbies. The Monitor's RSS feed of the entire day's paper is the only one of its kind from a major publisher.
"I look at the Web as an opportunity to have a million doorways to the Christian Science Monitor," says publisher Stephen Gray. "I think of it as a progression from one end, where it's free, to the other end, where it's paid. The pipeline has to be really big at the out end to bring in lots of beginners if you want to maximize the number of subscribers at the other end."
So while other news publications sniff at RSS feeds -- no advertising! no subscription fees! -- the Monitor's strategy is to incrementally acquire mindshare, to acquaint readers with the paper in small doses. RSS feeds fit into that strategy, along with free daily e-mail headline summaries (30,000 subscribers), electronic PDF files of the print edition, mobile news feeds, and 400 yearly appearances by Monitor staffers on TV and radio stations.
The approach seems to be working. The paper's print circulation is up 10 percent since the Sept. 11 attacks and Web site traffic has soared fourfold to 2.3 million monthly visitors. RSS feeds make up only a small fragment of total readership. The Monitor launched RSS feeds in late October and went to 9,000 RSS files served daily by the end of November. Today it's up to 18,000. Unfortunately, there's no way to determine how many readers that number represents.
Though the numbers are still small, Gray notes the cost of providing the feeds is essentially zero. "The content is already made, and once that's done we need to challenge ourselves to get it into somebody's path so they can engage with the Monitor in whatever form suits them," he says.
So far, news organizations or journalists with news feeds include The New York Times, ABCNews.com, MSNBC, BBC, ESPN, CNET News.com, Wired News, Salon, Slate, The FeedRoom, IndyMedia, Google News, the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, the Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald-Journal, blogger K. Paul Mallasch's J-Log, Dan Gillmor, Salon's Scott Rosenberg and British journalist Ben Hammersley. Some news aggregators manage to "scrape" the headlines of certain news sites, like the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, NPR, Associated Press and Wall Street Journal, enabling a simulated RSS feed. And some aggregators group news sources to provide a regional news feed, such as Africa or the Mideast.
Different uses for different users
From the user's perspective, busy professionals, journalists and researchers would seem to be ideal candidates to embrace news reader technology. For targeted information, RSS feeds will surely eclipse news alerts once the technology lets you parse the requested subject matter. But already, a medical reporter could subscribe to an RSS feed and receive updates published to a health database.
Ehud Lamm, a professor at the Open University of Israel, subscribes to 120 feeds and checks his news aggregator three to five times a day. He cherry-picks from a variety of feeds: foreign news (International Herald Tribune, BBC), bloggers (InstaPundit, Scripting News), obscure sites like Snowdeal.org, and sites that plumb niche subjects like linguistics and sociology.
"Aggregators, because of their instantaneous nature, are addictive. It is hard to start the day without checking what's new," he says in an interview by e-mail. "I almost never visit sites regularly anymore. I still consume other media quite voraciously, but whenever a news story breaks, I run to check the aggregator."
Scot Hacker, webmaster for the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, downloaded NetNewsWire (slogan: "More news, less junk. Faster.") for a class several months ago. "Within 10 minutes time I became convinced that RSS was going to become an incredibly important piece of Web publishing," he says. "I think of RSS like TiVo -- it lets me spend the same amount of time to take in a lot more media. For me it's not about speed, it's about saving time. I'm able to distill information much more efficiently."
Roger Turner, a freelance software developer in London who inspects his 218 news feeds five to 10 times a day, agrees. "Using a news aggregator has transformed the way I interact with the Web. News comes to me, on my terms. I feel in touch with 10 to 100 times as many sites as before RSS, with less effort."
Bernard Goldbach, a technology journalist for The Irish Examiner,
uses Newzcrawler on his IBM notebook because it lets him print out digests from 138 news sources in his constant forays around Ireland. "I read these printed copies when my eyes are tired or when cramped for space on trains or buses," he says. "Reading through aggregation gives me a sure-fire way of avoiding pop-ups, pop-unders and splash screens" encountered on most news sites.
Shayne Bowman is another believer. Two-thirds of the traffic to his Hypergene Mediablog arrives through RSS feeds. After seeing bloggers copy and paste his RSS blurbs into their weblogs, Bowman now spends a bit more time sprucing up the summaries that accompany each posting.
Bowman, a freelance journalist and designer, makes two predictions: "I think that RSS feeds will start replacing e-mail newsletters because they do a better job of providing structure and a more efficient means of parsing through data." And he sees revenue possibilities here. "RSS could be a great way of distributing and reading classified ad information, customized to the user's preferences. If news media don't do this soon, eBay and Monster will."
To reach truly large numbers of users, news readers will need to become integrated with other applications. Michael Krus, a Parisian who started NewsIsFree three years ago with a colleague in Switzerland because he grew tired of surfing to the same sites every day, says he thinks tying news readers to a Web browser, e-mail program or instant messaging program is the next logical step. "That would be a killer app," he says.
Among the developments already under way: The open-source Mozilla
browser and Netscape 7 come with sidebars that can display RSS feeds. There are news readers for handheld devices, and one being tested now that uses a ticker format to display headlines non-stop in the top line of your browser, like TV Headline News. Just double-click any headline to read the story.
Perhaps news readers will evolve into something that has little to do with news. Suggests Turner: "The perfect news reader won't be a 'news reader' -- it'll be an agent that mediates our interaction with personalized bulletins: aggregating, filtering, and prioritizing many sources of changing information."
The medium could reshape the message
News aggregators may yet have unforeseen effects on Web publishing. Userland Radio, for example, contains a little button that lets you snag a news item and republish it on your weblog. Bloggers say they've learned to craft their weblog entries to write blurbs in the inverted pyramid style and to craft straightforward headlines. Clever, elliptical treatments, or heads that depend on other visual elements on a Web page, don't work when viewed in a news reader.
"The New York Times movie reviews fail to mention the title of the work discussed -- one must read the article to discover it, which vitiates the usefulness of a news reader," observes Austin Burbridge, who publishes Cinemaminima, a digest of digital movie news in Los Angeles. "Worse, the entire article, regardless of length, is often included, which negates the summary function of the news reader."
One of the chief virtues of news readers is that they propel users into an immediate online dialogue, whether through e-mails, discussion boards or blog entries. Interactivity is much more vibrant when the news is fresh. "News readers help to build community," says Matthew Gifford, a Web developer in Bloomingdale, Ill. "You can see the ebb and flow of ideas around the network much better now."
But perhaps the biggest potential impact of news readers is the prospect that they will further level the playing field between Big Media and individual content creators. "It's all part of the democratization effect of the Web," says entrepreneur Dave Winer, who incorporated an early version of RSS in Userland software in 1999. "It puts bloggers on the same field as the big news corporations, and that's great."
Still, Winer, with a trove of 130 RSS subscriptions, counts The New York Times and BBC among his favorite feeds. "You go online for different things, and they do a good job covering the news," he says.
After a few weeks of dabbling with news readers, I'm a convert -- though I'm not quite ready to abandon my Web surfing habits. I'll doubtless use aggregators increasingly in the years ahead, as the tools become smarter. But I do think the newsroom function of context and prioritizing can be lost when every headline on the page carries the same diminutive weight.
Says publisher Gray: "I absolutely agree. I'm a Web guy and spend two to three hours a day online. But I don't find it all that satisfactory when it comes to reading news. To my mind, the visual cues built into a newspaper page are subliminal, but they're an immense help as people try to figure out what's relevant and important to them in the day's news."
Many users think otherwise. Says Burbridge: "The great advantage of the news aggregator-reader is that the distracting elements -- chiefly advertisements -- are stripped away. Even news photographs rarely add any new information to a story, and I count them as distractions, too."
For news providers, it's useful to remember that information stripped to its bare essentials -- that is to say, text -- is what a great many readers come for.
Senior Editor J.D. Lasica hosts a page of online resources on his home page at jdlasica.com. He also writes a popular weblog, New Media Musings.