Thursday, May 03, 2007

Study questions RSS' usefulness

A study being hyped by the University of Maryland's International Center for Media and the Public Agenda concludes that RSS feeds from mainstream news sites aren't very useful in keeping up with the news. (RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is that system that can "push" headlines, pictures and even full stories to a "reader" that is Web based or is on your computer):

  • This study was constructed to determine which news outlets use RSS well—which outlets give users the range of information that most closely approximates what can be found on the outlets' websites. ..
  • Rather than RSS, many users should just stick with Google’s Top Stories
  • The problem is that many news outlets don’t want to share…
That last is key to the study of RSS feeds from 19 news media outlets. It complains that most news outlets won't share items from the Associated Press or other syndicated material (although it notes that USAToday, ABC and CBS do). It also complains that some don't even include all their staff-generated content. Further:
Another problem the study uncovered is that RSS feeds are all different—there is no single standard of what goes on a news feed. Just because two news outlets both have feeds labeled “International” doesn’t mean that have decided to send the same type or quantity of news through their feeds. And for those consumers who are interested in a particular region or topic—rather than just interested in the top stories of a given day—it is usually necessary to add many feeds to one’s reader. And how to choose which feeds to add is complicated by the fact that some news outlets have less than twenty news feeds in total. Some have well over a hundred feeds to choose from.
The study suggests using Google News is just as efficient because otherwise the user will have to "track the news down website by website."

Hmmmm.... I think the study has one good point - RSS feeds would be a lot more helpful if they did as a standard contain key information such as date and time published, reporter's name, etc. (See the study's chart for a list.) But I think it shoots wide on several marks:

That lack of wire service items in the RSS feeds can easily be remedied. Go to AP and pick up its feeds.

As for the assertion that somehow there are too many choices, I don't see it as a problem. You pick and choose what you'd like to follow as specifically as you would like. In fact, I dislike sites that provide me just two or three aggregated feeds.

I think the study shows a basic misunderstanding of RSS. Most people who use such feeds aren't using them as their only media source. Instead, they are using them as a filter to quickly find interesting things on interesting sites -- and then they go follow those links to those sites.

There also seems to be a bit of an agenda to the study, and you won't find it (at least I didn't) on any of its Web pages. But it was in this message on Poynter's online news list:
Two key findings, according to the study:

1. News coverage of Pakistan reinforced President Bush's message that global terrorism is monolithic.
2. News coverage identified Pakistani women as the "good" Muslims--the "peacemakers" who could be the solution to terrorism at the family, tribal and national level.
The best rebuttal I've seen was by Stephen Downes on the Poynter list. I have not seen him post it anywhere on his site, so let me end by sharing it here:

The study of course looks only at RSS feeds distributed by the major news agencies, thereby missing the whole point of RSS. People who are seriously interested in the news these days no longer rely exclusively on commercial news organizations to deliver them the news. If they were interested in, say, Pakistan, they would search through (say) Technorati and subscribe to the best feeds (in their estimation) from the 142,000 results (obviously they would not scan all the results, just the hundred or so that constitute today's news from Pakistan). The point of RSS, of course is to allow readers to obtain news from a wide variety of points of view, including personal reports from people who live there. This is not possible if one reads only news RSS feeds, which is why nobody uses RSS that way. The study sets up a straw man.

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