Newspapers: turn off your RSS feeds

Update, 2 days later: Paul lets me guest post here (ie I wrote this, not him). It was going fairly well until I wrote this post … You can read my climbdown here

The latest subscriber figures (see table below, and first published in my blog’s newspapers category) 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 an alternative, such as their Twitter accounts.

(You can read some of the defences of RSS here and here)

The table below shows that only 3 of the 9 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.

melanie-phillips-rssDaily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips has just 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 3 RSS feeds at each newspaper

They didn’t all have three that showed up (full table here) …

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 retweeting and so are likely to be of interest.
  • 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 have got it and 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 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 its’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 …

daily-express-rssAnd 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 this 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 (written before the recent explosion in Twitter use) 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.
  • Google Reader has a large market share but there are other readers.
  • 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 mising feeds.
About these ads

57 thoughts on “Newspapers: turn off your RSS feeds

  1. Michael Grimes

    I think it’s a massive mistake, a huge retrospective step, to switch off RSS feeds if someone else is using them.

    For a start, RSS/Atom etc are used for much more than feed readers. Secondly, Twitter and feed readers are very different tools: I may spot something in passing on Twitter, and I’ll track it in Google Reader. Thirdly, why should it be one versus the other? It’s not as if keeping them running but using Twitter as well should be a particularly controversial commercial decision.

    Reply
  2. simon gray

    much as i disagree with pretty much every breath melanie phillips takes, i find it very difficult to believe that in the whole world of daily-mail-fuelled hatred there are only 11 people who read her bile via rss. so that leads me to conclude that the figures are fundamentally broken – which just about negates the whole premise of the article.

    that said, pushing links to *recommended* content via twitter etc is still a good thing – but as a complementary part of the whole service, not a replacement.

    Reply
  3. Jon

    Why not use both? I agree that not a lot of people seem to be using the RSS feeds, but not a lot of people used Google when that started – I think newspapers should be using all available methods to get their news across, and not just focus one or the other.

    As for only showing their RSS feeds in their footer, this makes sense, as not many people will visit their sites looking for just RSS feeds – the majority I presume will be looking for news. Be it current events, celebrity gossip, sport or whatever. These should surely be the most prominent tabs on the first page of a newspaper website? If somebody wants to find the RSS feed link, then doing a search of checking the footer is probably what they will do.

    I say use RSS feeds, use twitter, use any means possible to get your news out there and allow users to read and receive the news however they want. Heck, why not even print the news onto paper so people can read it without having to log onto a computer? Oh, wait…

    Reply
  4. Kasper Sorensen

    Isn’t this a little contradictory to what we normally regard as online journalism, where we look after a smaller but more widely distributed audience?

    I’m know you don’t advice turning it off completely, but focusing the effort on blogs etc. There are a few reasons why I don’t agree:

    1. Accessibility: And rss feed of the full content (and even an extract) is way more accessible than a tweet with a link forcing the user to visit the web page.

    2. RSS is not dead: The opposite is even more true, it’s not yet born. The public is yet to take up RSS feeds, I’m not sure it will see mainstream adoption, but I think it should be encouraged by newspapers (although they have a reason not to, which is called pageviews).

    3. Filtering: There are a few other factors such as filtering, research and information overload that is worth taking into account. It’s much easier to run an RSS feed through a filter like postrank or Yahoo Pipes to filter a heavy feed based on keywords.

    4. Developers: RSS feeds are vital for developers that want to use the content in applications and mashups.

    Anyway, an interesting discussion that we need to have to make sure RSS feeds are treated correctly and not just forgotten.

    Reply
  5. paulbradshaw

    Isn’t the point that RSS makes content mashable even if no one subscribes to it? More feeds! But I think a general point is that they could obviously be doing more…

    Reply
  6. Jon Bounds

    A bit of inflamatory nonsense really. RSS subscriber numbers are notoriously shaky, RSS administration takes no time whatsoever on a well set up CMS (in good ones it would take more time for the feeds to be dissabled).

    Some US research about RSS usage suggested that around 19% of people online used RSS in some way – not to mention al
    of the other services/mashups etc that use them).

    On top of that where would the tweets of articles come from were it not RSS feeds?

    Reply
  7. Robin Brown

    Presumably The Grauniad has such an absurd amount of feeds simply to boost the number of on-site pages, ads and revenues. I can’t think why else they’d have such obscure feeds.

    Reply
  8. malcolmcoles

    As I said on a comment on journalism.co.uk, the heading ‘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)’ probably wouldn’t have worked …

    Anyway, I think we all need to remember that we aren’t typical – trying to suggest you can filter a feed through Yahoo Pipes shows that…

    For the general public, RSS feeds are a mystery. If they subscribed to one from a newspaper, they would soon be overwhelmed by the quantity of items in their RSS reader. And they would soon get fed up with feeds looking like the Express one or not updating properly or getting mixed up or being on the wrong URL and only the other one is updating or …. any of the problems RSS suffers from occasionally.

    So I think the papers should do one thing or another. Either use them as a back-end function to feed other platforms/publishers, in which case don’t expose them on the webpages (the Express and Mirror have them in the header on every page – for very little effect …). Or embrace them, publicise them, get people to use them. The current half-way house is a bit odd to me.

    In some ways, fans of newspaper RSS feeds remind me of those comapnies who come and give you a presentation about their desktop app: “Yeah, we could build you Desktop Malcolm (TM). People could download it and every time you tweet or blog or comment, Desktop Malcolm would light up and show what you’ve done.” Of course, only about 10 people would use it and it would be a bit crap. And I’d have to keep dealing with technical problems. But those 10 people would probably be really loyal and outraged if it were turned off.

    Reply
  9. Andy

    Go on then, I’ll bite.

    Your tipping at windmills here. A good RSS feed should generate and manage itself. It shows good tagging and structure within the site and doesn’t/shouldn’t command any more or less resources than a twitter feed.

    If the system can do them and some people use them – with little or no prompting or demand for support they would seem like the ultimate win/win.

    Reply
  10. malcolmcoles

    Jon – I’m not saying turn all RSS feeds off. I use them for some sites. And really – you’ve never seen problems with them? The wrong feed, no update, the madness of the Express theatre feed above? See what Kristine said here (and she was arguing against me!): “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.”

    Robin – I think they see it as a neat technical thing. And it is. I wonder how many people use it though …

    Reply
  11. Dan Thornton

    Most of my points have been said – RSS should essentially manage itself, and don’t need any content creation/support etc. And they allow people to take contact and use it in a variety of ways – including displaying it as a widget on their own social networking profile/website, for example, or feeding other services, in addition to allow feed readers.

    Before you turn off RSS, you might want to check how many papers are mindlessly churning out their RSS feeds on Twitter for example!

    Personally, if newspapers turned off RSS, I suspect they’d never see me visit their sites again – I use Twitter as a real time stream of information, but my RSS Reader is a library of sources I’ve invested time nad effort in reading regularly and getting to know. One doesn’t replace the other – they co-exist.

    Reply
  12. Ian Hill

    RSS feeds require little server space and less support. More resources would be needed to take them down than to just leave them up. The argument here just doesn’t make sense.
    Instead, as previous commenters have suggested, more should be done to promote RSS feeds (as this blog does seem to suggest) and use them in mash-ups – particularly with Twitter. The mid-size newspaper where I work has successfully used our RSS feeds and Twitterfeed to expand our Twitter audience fourfold. Most of the time, Twitter carries our stories to followers automatically thanks to RSS. But that also doesn’t prevent us from using Twitter to help cover breaking stories and events. Really, when used together, RSS and Twitter are a great tool.

    Reply
  13. malcolmcoles

    “RSS feeds require little server space and less support.”

    I know appealing to the Express to support me is weak. But it’s just too easy. Go here:

    http://www.express.co.uk/feeds/

    I randomly clicked on 7 feeds:
    Gardening: latin gibberish
    Health: gibberish
    Books: appears to be working
    City: working
    Competitions: page not found
    DVD: gibberish
    Music: gibberish.

    Maybe don’t turn them off. Maybe do them properly …

    Reply
  14. Matt Wardman

    Briefly:

    1 – I think you’ve got the wrong end of the wrong stick here – sorry.
    2 – I see no downside of running RSS – certainly the overhead is absolutely minimal.
    3- You can ask a design question about how you draw attention to RSS feeds, but that is not about “RSS or not”.
    4 – I just don’t buy the idea that the poor ickle public can’t cope with a lot of content.
    5 – Guess what most papers drive their Twitter headline feeds from? e.g., http://twitter.com/guardiantech
    6 – Arguing to replace an open standard with a proprietary service is apples and oranges, and not very smart.
    7 – I think this is a debate alongside bloggers vs journalists or care vs bicycles. We need both.
    8 – And … finally. What about podcast subscription? They are driven by RSS.

    Rgds

    Matt

    Reply
  15. Mindy McAdams

    RSS is a great way to feed a news organization’s own mobile sites and apps. That’s one good reason not to “turn off” the RSS feeds coming from your news organization.

    I un-subscribed from my local newspaper’s RSS feed because it was useless. Perhaps other people have had that experience too. Why was it useless? Well, they sent it out at about 11 a.m. each day. The news in the newspaper is already a day old at 7 a.m. — the delay made it even worse.

    But there was something even more useless: Inexplicably, the feed was both undifferentiated and incomplete. Long, interesting local news stories (by staff writers) were often omitted. Letters to the editor were often included (huh?!). There were no options for screening out sports, say, or the gardening column.

    The New York Times and the BBC have very well organized feeds, sliced and diced in ways that make them super useful to anyone who knows how to grab them.

    In the U.S. we receive very little news from Asia (except trouble spots). I have set up a collection of feeds from various news organizations that keep me abreast of news in that region. This is made possible by the intelligent segmentation of the feeds by the news organizations themselves.

    If the numbers are accurate, maybe the fault lies in the content of the RSS feed, or the way it is delivered, and not in the technology of RSS.

    Reply
  16. Jamie

    You have some really big flaws in your argument with this one.

    1) The foundation of your argument for getting rid of RSS feeds is based on statistics gained solely from Google Reader. You admit at the end of the article that there are other readers, yet your own argument hinges on those statistics. Yes, there are *many* other RSS readers that are web-based, offline readers, mobile readers, etc. There is no way to determine marketshare of RSS readers or how many people are reading them.

    2) You mention that RSS stories can’t be “retweeted.” This is wrong. You should know this considering that you only looked at Google Reader. There are options to share and email stories to others. Many readers allow stories to be published to social sites like Digg, Facebook, Reddit, etc. Some even allow you to tweet the links.

    3) You’re arguing that RSS — which is non-proprietary and open to everyone — should be replaced with Twitter, which is proprietary and exists as long as the company exists. Very bad move. News should not be filtered through a single organization.

    Reply
  17. malcolmcoles

    This feels like it needs a Google Wave to really work …

    Anyway, perhaps I should have stated this as ‘Newspapers: stop promoting your RSS feeds to the general public’.

    I don’t want to turn off podcasts, obv. And if people want to create mashups, tools on other platforms etc, then they should be allowed to.

    But plastering RSS logos over all your pages without any attempt to explain them or get people to use them seems a bit pointless to me.

    If they weren’t there, and a designer said ‘I know, let’s put an RSS logo in the centre of our headers’, the answer would surely be ‘no – not enough people use it or want it or understand it.’

    Reply
  18. Matt Wardman

    >But plastering RSS logos over all your pages without any attempt to explain them or get people to use them seems a bit pointless to me.

    That’s rather a different point to the one you don’t make stick in the piece :-)

    Anyone who doesn’t explain RSS feeds, or has a bad design, or presents them in a confusing way, is just an idiot.

    Reply
  19. malcolmcoles

    Yes, I should have got you to subedit it Matt: “Malcolm Coles argues from Google Reader figures that newspapers should withdraw their reader-level RSS feeds and use them as an information provider for external service providers, switching their readers to Twitter.” That sounds much better. (http://www.mattwardman.com/blog/2009/07/01/twitter-vs-rss-is-a-false-dichotomy-can-we-be-sensible-please/)

    Though I was aiming for more provocative than ill informed …

    Reply
  20. Nigel Barlow

    Both Twitter and RSS shoulkd compliment each other.After all it is zero cost for both and the the more exposure the better,surely.

    In these difficult times for the media,every avenue should be used to promote content

    Reply
  21. Pingback: Newspapers: keep your RSS feeds « doctorvee

  22. paulbradshaw

    There is a point here, and I think it’s more general than RSS. Media organisations need to move on from adopting these technologies and helping users to do so. Teach a man to fish… and all that (when you own a fish bait shop).
    You could argue that some news orgs are doing this at a higher level with hack days, BBC Backstage, etc. 4iP is making some steps at a lower level with Talk About Local. But imagine if a magazine publisher helped a group of passionate readers to start a Twitter group or Ning…?

    Reply
  23. Pingback: Is Twitter Going to Replace RSS for News Sites? | (iverson's) currentbuzz

  24. Allison White

    I think a good solution for this would be keeping a maximum of five RSS feeds going and also having some Twitter accounts. I agree that news sources don’t need hundreds or thousands of RSS feeds – that’s ridiculous.

    I would be horribly sad if I was forced to look at Twitter for all my news needs, because filtering through all the people I follow to catch the news stories would be difficult. RSS is mostly how I get my news.

    Reply
  25. Matt Wardman

    >I think a good solution for this would be keeping a maximum of five RSS feeds going and also having some Twitter accounts. I agree that news sources don’t need hundreds or thousands of RSS feeds – that’s ridiculous.

    I think that is philisophically at variance with an open culture and a focus on the customer/reader – rather like suggesting a maximum number of categories that can *ever* be built in the Dewey Decimal system. Total flexibility is the only way, though I’d go with “promote 5-20 (i.e., perhaps one per section) and provide a totally flexible mechanism for customers to use to make their own”.

    Imho a serious problem on newspaper websites is that they are terrible at providing mid-level ways of linking content together – for example a series of 10 related articles on a topic.

    The Groan website has 11,000,000 web pages on it and a dearth of ways to find the bits I am interested in. Why can’t I have a feed that tells me about new pieces in niches I want to track – it seems to be a no-brainer?

    I have enough trouble with 3000 articles on mattwardman.com , and being on WordPress I do category feeds, tag feeds, author feeds, an overall comment feed and my own classificaton of “channel feeds” which are feeds from higher up in the category hierarchy – such as “politics”.

    I also provide a basic explanation to the simpler bits here (accessed from the site when you click on “feeds”):

    http://www.mattwardman.com/blog/feeds/

    Reply
  26. Pingback: RSS is dead – long live Twitterfeed « Freelance Unbound

  27. Matt Machell

    On the subject of the Express’ feeds. It looks like they went live with test data in them (Lorem Ipsum http://lipsum.com/ ), which is about what you’d expect from such a sloppy redesign.

    The problem isn’t that RSS doesn’t work, more that newspapers need to design around it more carefully. After all, just the language you use can have a dramatic effect (see http://www.copyblogger.com/increase-blog-subscribers/ ) and a bit of careful split testing of subscription methods could help you boost usage fairly easily.

    Reply
  28. Ian Hill

    You can’t generalize from one newspaper to the entire industry, any more than I can assume that because Eddie Izzard is an Englishman who wears dresses, all Englishmen wear dresses. (Not that there’s anything wrong with it.)
    As far as the Express goes, I’m going to take the daring journalistic step of emailing them and asking for their thoughts. I’ll let you know when/if they reply.

    Reply
  29. Pingback: Footprints (02.07.09) | Chris Deary

  30. Pingback: Views of the future: Around Journalism | Ian Hill

  31. Pingback: Links for 2009-07-02 [del.icio.us] « iThinkEducation.net!

  32. Pingback: links for 2009-07-03 « David Black

  33. Pingback: Twitter y la muerte de los periódicos « Francisco Fernández-Beltrán’s Blog

  34. mediaobserver

    funny, i was encouraged to read this article off of a tweet that i subscribed to via rss…hmmmmm

    Reply
  35. mediaobserver

    “3) You’re arguing that RSS — which is non-proprietary and open to everyone — should be replaced with Twitter, which is proprietary and exists as long as the company exists. Very bad move. News should not be filtered through a single organization.” – Jamie

    Ding Ding, well said.

    Reply
  36. Pingback: Newspapers and RSS: the key to success or a waste of resources? « Clicking and Screaming

  37. Pingback: Why RSS Versus Twitter Beats Federer Versus Roddick In Straight Sets « Jon Bernstein

  38. malcolmcoles

    MediaObserver: I was arguing that newspapers need to go where their (potential) readers are and engage with them. Not that Twitter should be used as an alternative platform. The two points are different. I think.

    Reply
  39. James Goffin

    On the visibility point, all the main browsers have had an RSS feed button for some time that automatically picks up feeds on the page.
    It’s simply not necessary for sites to highlight them in the same way that it once was, and we’re looking at ditching on-screen links from our redesigned sites for precisely that reason. There are better users of the screen estate.

    Reply
  40. Ian Hill

    Hey Malcolm, quick FYI: I went to follow up on my previous email and checked the Express feeds you refer to above. All now seem to be working, save for Competitions, which is empty. And that could mean they haven’t posted a competitions story in a bit. Perhaps they just needed an email to let them know the feeds needed fixing.

    Reply
  41. malcolm coles

    Good spot, Ian. Express people: Now you need to change the title to explain what each feed is. having ‘Express :: Feed’ on every one isn’t very clear … Still, nearly there.

    Reply
  42. Pingback: Newscloud and other mash-ups: Around Journalism | Ian Hill

  43. Pingback: Rodeados de Twitter por todas partes. Enredados. La Revista: Twitter & Periodismo

  44. JGM

    Goodness me. No offence, but it’s this sort of thinking that got the newspaper business into such a mess in the first place.

    RSS feeds are a fixed cost to newspapers. They provide short details to readers, and allow them to link to the paper for more details.

    I’m surprised at the supposed readership rates the author quotes. I suspect that these numbers are not accurate. The only really useful numbers would come from the server that actually supplies the feed. I get the impression that the numbers the author is quoting are best estimates that the web designer put on that reflect a rough heuristic of use. For example, consider the Microsoft download manager which uses a rough heuristic that causes it to display download times that vary from minutes to hours.

    In short, the author should realize that not all numbers are valid simply because they appear on a web site or are automatically generated. Instead, one needs to look at the context in which they appear, and to verify any numbers with those who implemented them. A lot of work? Yes. Tedious? Yes. Coincidently, these are the same ingredients that used to go into good news reporting before it became excessively profit oriented and time obsessed.

    Reply
  45. malcolm coles

    Is this still rumbling on?!?

    They’re not a fixed cost – they require maintenance. Let’s leave that aside for now.

    No one has ever queried the google reader numbers to the extent you have before. It’s clear that they are just one player. But they are a significant one and it’s fairly commonly accepted that they are accurate as far as their own subs go. It’s nothing like download manager, which is trying to measure unknown unknowns.

    Reply
  46. Matt Wardman

    I stayed off the stats, but – for example – Feedburner chicklets can now include Friendfeed subscribers. No idea whether these are included in Martin’s stats – but he does put a big questionmark over their reliability.

    One problem with newspaper RSS stats used to be that they had a huge component of bloglines readers which were excluded when people switched to counting on Google reader. That punished the early adopter sites.

    And what about readers who read headlines in sidebar widgets on other sites – do they count? E.g., this third party Times blogs widget has had 2700 downloads and a lot of installs.

    http://www.widgetbox.com/widget/times-online-blogs

    How many installs will their own widgets have had, and how many readers?

    ‘Tis a quicksand.

    Reply
  47. malcolm coles

    Don’t get me started on feedburner. You get a prize if you can find any helpful information about it … Since google bought it, the user experience for new users has become dreadful.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s