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Newspapers: Turn off your RSS feeds

This is a cross-post from Malcolm Coles’ personal website:

The latest subscriber figures (see table below) show that, apart from a couple of exceptions, it’s time for newspapers to turn off their RSS feeds – and hand over the server space, technical support and webpage real estate to their Twitter accounts.

The table below shows that only three of the nine national newspapers have an RSS feed with more than 10,000 subscribers in Google Reader. And most newspaper RSS feeds have readerships in the 00s, if that.

Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips has 11 subscribers to her RSS feed (maybe there’s hope for the UK population yet …).

Despite having virtually no users, the Mail churns out 160 RSS feeds and the Mirror 280. All so a couple of thousand people can look at them in total.

The other papers are just as bad. And while the Guardian has a couple of RSS readers with decent numbers (partly because Google recommends it in its news bundle), it has more feeds than there are people in the UK…

Top three RSS feeds at each newspaper
They didn’t all have three that showed up:

Table of UK newspapers' RSS feeds

Switch to Twitter instead
I suggest newspapers switch to Twitter instead. Twitter’s advantages over RSS include:

  • Wheat vs chaff – As a reader, you can see which stories other people are RTing and are therefore popular.
  • Context – There’s space in 140 characters for newspapers to give some background to stories as well as the headline (well, there is for those that don’t just stick the first few words of the standfirst after the headline).
  • Promotion – Followers can RT newspaper stories, promoting the paper – they can’t do this with elements of an RSS feed.
  • Tracking – Stories’ development can be tracked on Twitter – you can’t usually tell what’s changed in an RSS feed.
  • Conversation You can take part in a conversation on Twitter. People only talk to their RSS feed when they swear at it. The journalists behind the story can tweet, too.

Newspapers agree with me
As I say, despite poor subscriptions for many feeds, papers pump out RSS feeds as if there’s no tomorrow – the second column in the table below shows how many feeds (rounded) that each paper has.

But despite this, it’s clear some papers agree with me – and have already given up on RSS feeds and no longer actively promote them.

No visibility
The Mail, despite its 160-odd feeds, only mentions them in its footer.

The same is true of the Sun.

On the page but hardly visible
The FT’s RSS link does at least have a logo – but its buried at the bottom of the right-hand column on each page.

The Telegraph shows relevant RSS feeds on pages – but they’re buried in a different way: above a banner ad that no one will ever look at.

Even the Guardian, which lets you mash up your own RSS feeds (hence the 000,000s in the table), hides details of its feeds under an unusual term ‘webfeed’ in the far right of its header.

The Times still has an RSS link in its main header menu on its news page. On other pages it’s at the bottom. And it mentions Twitter on its pages much more than RSS.

Visible – but not doing them any good
The Independent is alone in listing RSS feeds on its main category pages – although that doesn’t seem to get it many subscribers.

The Mirror has an RSS link next to its search box, although it took me ages to find it. Does this count as visible – it’s not exactly intuitive…

And the Express has a link and a logo prominently in its header. But as the Express doesn’t update its website often (or at all on Sunday), I guess that’s why no one subscribes. And some of its RSS feeds appear to be garbage – check out its theatre one…

Caveats about the data
After you’ve started writing something about newspapers, you’ll eventually discover that Martin Belam has already written about it. Having just noticed his Top 75 British newspaper RSS feeds as I was researching Google Reader’s market share, I figured I’d just repeat his caveats about his own data as they apply to mine too:

  • Subscribers don’t necessarily ever read anything.
  • Numbers quoted by Google vary wildly.
  • Newspapers have problem with the same feed on different URLs. To quote Martin: “If the papers themselves can’t work out how to set one canonical URL for their content, why should I?”
  • Google Reader search is not great. There may be missing feeds.

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  • Mike Davey

    The big flaw in this argument is that not everyone uses Google Reader. As both IE7/8 and Firefox support RSS feeds direct you can probably at least double all these figures.

  • At first sight, subscriber data suggests that RSS feeds are indeed a waste of resource. However, this misses the most important point about RSS feeds. They are not about “subscribers” but about the portability of content.

    There may only be 11 subscribers to the RSS feed of Melanie Phillips, but the availability of her RSS feed means that her content can appear throughout the web on other pages, in mashups of content and on personalised viewing pages such as Netvibes and Pageflakes. None of those usages will show up as a “subscriber”.

    RSS is what makes the web tick these days. Indeed, many newspapers submit their RSS feeds to Twitter, automating the distribution of content.

    Far from being time to switch off RSS feeds, it’s actually time for newspapers to make more of them by distributing their content more widely. Being distracted by poor subscriber figures is essentially looking in the wrong direction.

  • On this particular issue I have to disagree with you Malcolm. I find newspapers RSS feeds invaluable and regret the fact that some newspapers keep messing this up by not providing feeds broken down by sections, by switching feeds without informing their readers, by sending their entire politics feed into their media feed etc etc. In other words, I still use RSS feeds heavily.

    First of all, I’m a big fan of making content as easily available as possible and leave it to consumers to decide where they want to access it, whether that’s on the news sites, via RSS, on Twitter or in other forms. Does it have to be either or, are there really major costs attached to making content available via RSS? If that was the case, wouldn’t news sites make a better job of highlighting RSS?

    I read some feeds mostly via Twitter, like those of small media publications with limited output, but I follow so many people on Twitter that 1) I never follow publications with a big output on Twitter, like e.g. a national newspaper’s news feed, as it drowns everything else/gets annoying 2) I’ve come to see Twitter more as a stream I dip in and out of, rather frequently, but I don’t read everything posted there and even though I follow Media Guardian, PressGazette, PaidContent etc on Twitter, it’s good to have RSS as backup.

    And overall, how many people are really getting their news via RSS and Twitter? Aren’t we really discussing how news sites should target a rather small segment of the population? And again, are there costs involved that makes it meaningful to spend a lot of time considering if it should be either or?

  • you’re right that publishers should focus more on social media tools like twitter. but besides the points mentioned above, the flaw with the main argument here is the underlying assumption that the level of effort that is applied to maintaining existing rss feeds is somehow the same as posting to twitter or that the two are mutually exclusive.

    from the publisher’s standpoint, once rss feeds exist (feeds exists on all the sites you mention) most if not all publishing systems push content to the rss feeds automatically as content goes live. so there is really very little if any work involved in maintaining rss feeds or updating them. hence there is no real gain in turning them off as long as there is any audience consumption of the feeds at all.

  • I was thrilled to see Graham Jones made his points so quickly, RSS feeds are vital and need to be there and since when did RSS become an either/or contest with Twitter. Surely both works best?

    I use RSS feeds to source much of the material that I will then Twitter about, adding value to my contribution on this platform. How often would I find stories from Twittering newspapers?

    With the competing demands for attention, it should be obvious why newspapers persist with RSS feeds, but I suspect they are there by default rather than comprehension.

    Personally, we Twitter and also have RSS feeds on our blog, they bring us into contact with a distinct, if sometimes overlapping, readership.

  • First up, some more of this argument is going off on my blog.

    Second up, I’d like to claim that the people who are tweeting this are doing so because they saw other people tweet it. Some are even adding comments in their tweets, such as @ourman: “(interesting but don’t agree – surely RSS feeds are zero work)”.

    Anyway:

    @MikeDavey – Oops. I did have that in the list of caveats at the end. Must have deleted it accidentally. Still, what’s twice 10? And the Express doesn’t seem to have lots with 0, so twice 0 is still 0 …

    @Graham Yes, there are lots of technical ways to use RSS. But I’ve sat in meetings where people have said that we don’t need to do X or Y to get our content out there because we have an RSS feed. If you’re going to keep them, maybe make a better fist of them than the Express, though … And RSS as a mechanism for papers to pump out their headlines isn’t the right format. Papers produce too much content: “Mark all as read”.

    @Kristine. I like old-school Ceefax – they’re not keeping it on just for me though! And thanks for this point: “some newspapers keep messing this up by … switching feeds without informing their readers, by sending their entire politics feed into their media feed etc etc.” Exactly – these things DO NOT just produce themselves, whatever the CMS seller said. You have to manage them. Management takes time and money.

    @Mark – see Kristine’s quote!

    To sum up – papers produce too much content for a general RSS feed to be useful to subscribers. They produce too many RSS feeds that no one wants. And apart from the Express’s theatre feed (look here – it’s garbage), they require management. So switch them all off. Maybe all is excessive. Switch off most of them, and don’t pretend they’re a good way to get your content out there.

  • Graham: “Indeed, many newspapers submit their RSS feeds to Twitter, automating the distribution of content.” Yes, and isn’t it awful when they do …

    Nigel: I’m not suggesting we turn off RSS altogether. It’s good for blogs etc. Newspapers produce too much content for anyone (who isn’t reporting on the industry!) to cope with an RSS feed.

  • @Malcolm Coles: I see your point. I’d be interested in learning how much time this actually takes for other publishers. I can only speak from my experience, and from what I’ve seen where I’ve worked, and from my experience there is very little time required in maintaining the feeds once they exist.

    A separate but related point.. many publishers rely on rss feeds exclusively to a) syndicate content to partner sites b) supply content to different platforms like mobile sites. This is a really substantial point in terms of the business value of rss feeds that may not be readily apparent to a regular user of the site. How do you propose publishers syndicate content and power their mobile sites without RSS or similar feeds?

  • Mark – yes, OK. They need them for syndication etc reasons. I’m not sure ‘Turn off RSS feeds for your customers (but feel free to leave them on as a way to send info to other publishers of platforms)’ would quite have worked, headline-wise …

  • @Malcom Coles: Right. Your headline is catchier, got me to click to read.. but why no mention of this value of RSS in the post then?

  • Mark: Well, it was a blog post. I’m allowed to be polemical!

    Obviously, I couldn’t resist going to look at your RSS feed. Don’t take this the wrong way, please – I’m not doing this to be overly defensive or arsey. But it’s here. And it suffers from truncated headings. And this one doesn’t seem to be anything?

    Keeping RSS feeds going is not resource free.

    You can get your own back now by going to look at mine …

  • Malcolm: I’m not really going to go into a tit-for-tat exchange here. If you’d like to email me I would be happy to discuss automating posts on my personal blog from twitter and how it’s working.

    Now back to this thread. My comments here were motivated by a personal opinion that standards of accuracy also apply to those who report or comment on journalism and the publishing industry. But to each their own right?

    This has been a good conversation. Have a good day, looking forward to reading your posts more in the future.

  • Mark: I think I’m definitely in a minority of one. You can read some more people disagreeing on OJB. Cheers.

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  • You can read my massive u-turn on this over here

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  • The reason people don’t use RSS feeds as much is because they are not full-text-feeds. I say turn them to full text or just use them as a sort of internal messaging system.

    I use Full-Text-Feeds with the http://www.Feedjournal.com application on my website http://www.Libertynewsprint.com
    Its much easier to follow the feeds seeing them in an elegant full text newspaper format.

    Cheers,

    ~J

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