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For several years now, the trend among geeks has been to abandon the RSS format. RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a way to queue up and serve content from the internet.

Source: The Case for RSS — MacSparky

Geeks might not like RSS, but it’s an essential tool if you monitor news or need to stay up to date with developments in a subject area.

An RSS feed is a way of listing material that’s published online. There’s a feed for this site if you’re interested. It sends out a short headline and extract as each post is published. That way you can stay up to date with everything published here without needing to constantly revisit the site to check for updates.

Separate feeds

Some big sites break up their news rivers into separate feeds. At the New York Times or The Guardian you can choose to read the technology news feed. At ZDNet you can pick subject feeds or selected a feed for an individual journalist.

Sometimes you can also roll your own niche feeds from big sites by using a search term to get a list of all stories including a certain key word.

The beauty of RSS is that it is comprehensive. It misses nothing. If you go offline for a week you can pick up where you left off and catch up immediately.

RSS is comprehensive

The alternatives are social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. They are nothing like as comprehensive or as easy to manage. Tweets go flying past in a blur on Twitter.

All the main social media sites manage your feed. They decide what gets served up. This means you can miss important posts as they get pushed out of sight. That doesn’t happen with RSS.

In his story David Sparks says you need to be on Twitter all the time to catch news. Make that: you need to be on Twitter all the time AND staying more alert than most people can manage.

Universal feed

The other great thing about RSS is the format is so universal. It can be as simple as raw text. You can read it on your phone, tablet, computer or anywhere at any time. You can suck it out and place it on your own web site, for instance.

There are RSS readers built into browsers, mail clients like Outlook and other standard software. Or at least there were. I haven’t checked again lately. One of the most popular readers is Feedly. This is both a website and a series of free apps. You can pay a little extra to extra features such as an ability to search feeds, tools for integrating feeds into your workflows and so on.

The case for RSS was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

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I’ve a few ideas about new ways of working as a journalist that overlap with the Indieweb movement.

The first is having a syndicated work portfolio. If you like, a single source, feed or river of everything I post elsewhere.

This means linking back to my stories published on mainstream media sites. I want to do this even when those sites don’t reciprocate my links. At the moment I sometimes write a linking blog post on my site.

Here’s one from last year: https://billbennett.co.nz/agility-knowledge-economy-key-for-auckland-as-an-emerging-global-city/

My second idea is to somehow consolidate the comments that fill different buckets at places like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. There are also some on Disqus. There have been times when there are two or more conversations covering much the same aspects of a story. It would be better if the interested commenters could see what others have to say and interact.

Indieweb central repository

Then there’s my unrealised idea of moving to more of a stream-of-concious style of reporting. This is not so much Jack Kerouac style, but more like the daily live blogs you see on sites like The Guardian. I like the idea of writing a post then update it as the story evolves. This would be easier to manage with a central repository.

Last and not least, there’s my need as a journalist to own my work outside of the big silos. I’m not a snob about FaceBook or Google, but I am aware their shareholders get the reward for my effort when my work appears there. It won’t happen overnight, but the Indieweb may hold the key to redressing the balance in the future.

deathtostock_modernworkshop-04At The Register Shaun Nichols writes:

“The tech press has dared to lean away from its core mission of making technology companies more profitable, says tech advocacy house ITIF.”

The ITIF or Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is an industry think-tank. It issued a report looking at “a change of tone in technology reporting” between the 1980s and this decade.

Long story short, it says the media moved from a positive attitude towards the industry to confrontation.

This, according to the ITIF, is because being tough on the industry makes it easier for tech media to turn a profit.

It goes on to talk about the media being ‘biased’ and distorts the public view of technology.

Yes, it’s all stuff and nonsense. There’s a lot to unpack, but here are a couple of ideas to think about.

Advertising

In the past publishers made money selling advertising to technology companies. They were a great sales conduit. It worked.

The technology industry was the tech media’s most important customer. Rivers of gold poured in.

While there are publishers who publish nice stories in return for advertising dollars, that was never a great business model. Reader are not fooled. They don’t stick around for blatant propaganda.

The advertising money didn’t buy favourable coverage, at least in the better publications. It did foster a favourable attitude towards the industry. The coverage reflected this.

The partnership also meant journalists and publishers spent time in the company of tech industry people. That too is good for creating a positive attitude.

One conclusion of the ITIF report is more advertising would repair media relations.

Readers and journalists

In the old model, advertisers paid for journalism, but journalists serve readers. Few understood this then. They still don’t.

As Nichols says, we’re not industry cheerleaders. We don’t earn cheerleader, public relations or marketing-type salaries.

Our job is to inform readers. If there is more cynicism in technology media (see the next point) then that is what readers want.

Modern reporting tools mean we know what stories rate from the minute they go online. Guess what? Readers are less likely to click on happy-slappy, isn’t everything wonderful darling stories.

In other words, journalists and publishers respond to reader demands.

Don’t shoot the messenger if they now have a darker view of the tech industry. Get your own house in order.

It’s all nonsense anyway

To argue tech media is meaner than it ways, say, thirty years ago is bonkers. The big newspapers and media sites are full of thin press release rewrites. It is common for blatant propaganda to appear as factual news.

Take, for the sake of argument, Computerworld New Zealand. Thirty years ago, even a decade ago, it was breaking news stories. It was quoted in Parliament. Today, it runs nothing that didn’t start life in a public relations office.

That’s not to say all the tech media is soft. It isn’t. But the ratio of soft stories to more hard hitting news is off the scale. You have to wonder if the ITIF is paying attention.

New Zealand Herald digital editionThe New Zealand Herald sent an email today inviting readers to subscribe to a NZ$25 a month digital edition.

This is a good idea. A digital edition is an exact electronic copy of the print edition. The paper is available online at 6am each day. It is separate from the website version of the paper at http://nzherald.co.nz.

You can read the digital edition from a Windows PC or Mac in a browser. There are apps for iOS and Android users.

Read on PCs, tablets, phones

The NZ Herald digital edition displays well on a big PC screen. A digital facsimile of the daily paper would be a joy to read on, say, the large version of the iPad Pro. You’ll get by fine on most laptops and 10-inch tablets.

A digital newspaper is harder work on a mobile phone. Small screens are not the best way to read tabloid pages. Yet even that format can be useful sometimes.

Digital newspaper editions are not new. They’ve been around since the 90s. A digital version of The New Zealand Herald was available on Pressdisplay (now called PressReader) when the Herald was still a broadsheet.

Like a newspaper, without paper

There are two reasons why a digital edition could be better than reading a website. First, web news pages lack context. You can instantly grasp the relative importance of stories and how they relate to each other.

While editors place the most important stories at the top of a list on a site’s home page, that’s not the same. And anyway, few readers arrive via the home page. For most news context is something decided by a Google algorithm or another automatic process.

Online news sites serve up atomised news, digital editions give a bigger picture.

The other aspect of old school print papers that you miss when reading news websites is the lack of filtering.

Papers are organised into sections: News, world news, business, sport and so on, but they serve up a wide range of material within these broad sections. You’ll find you’ll read more widely and are better informed — even if that is just a matter of glancing at headlines in passing.

The downside of a digital edition is that is out of date after publication. Although you might see this as a positive if you think of it a snapshot frozen in time.

At $25 a month, the NZ Herald digital edition is about half the price of having the print edition delivered. Some print subscriptions include the digital edition at no extra cost. For some readers that makes the digital edition great added value.

Money

Given the high cost of printing and distribution, it might seem the publisher isn’t passing on all the potential cost savings.

In practice, it’s more complicated. Setting up the technology to deliver a digital edition is expensive, it may require frequent tweaking. Reader numbers for digital editions is often a fraction of print edition reader numbers. So these costs are shared by a relatively low number of readers.

One trick the Herald’s digital edition marketing effort has missed is offering a sample edition so potential customers can check the format is right for them.

Six years ago Rupert Murdoch hailed tablets as the newspaper industry’s saviour. That was premature. The industry is still stumbling to find a way to make money after the advertising apocalypse. Digital editions could help, but it puts the onus back on publishers to ensure the content is worth paying for.

Bill Bennett writes features for New Zealand Herald business reports.

Scientists say a meteor hit the earth 66 million years ago and wiped out most dinosaurs.

Journalists know how they felt. A meteor crashed into our world in the 1990s.

The internet’s effect wasn’t immediate. Now, two decades on, most of my former colleagues work in other industries. The media companies that employed us have either gone or are shadows of what they once were.

After the apocalypse

A handful of us write on. At times it feels like life in post-apocalypse science fiction.

Some ex-journalists eke out a living in what remains of the media. A few adapted to the new conditions, new rules, new demands and disciplines [1].

A decade or so after the first meteor hit, a second one arrived. Facebook threatens to kill off what’s left of the independent media.

The Empire strikes back

The cover story of this week’s The Economist nails it: Facebook is an empire. That’s no metaphor. Facebook’s power and reach rivals that of the USA.

Facebook has more inhabitants than China. It owns more souls than any religion. It makes more money than almost anything. It knows more about you than the CIA or any other spy agency in history.

The numbers are daunting. Facebook has 1.6 billion users. The Economist says around a billion of them use Facebook every day. On average they each spend 20 minutes at the site.

As a result Facebook is the sixth largest company in the world. And it continues to grow. Founder Mark Zuckerberg isn’t done yet.

Facebook is impressive. It appeared almost overnight. It innovates, takes risks and adapts to external changes at internet-speed.

Welcome to the new internet, not like the old internet

In some third world countries Facebook is, in effect, the internet. It controls the networks delivering services to users.

Facebook wants to have the same dominance elsewhere. The business is spreading into entertainment, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. There has never been a walled garden like this before.

Because Facebook knows so much about you and everyone else, it can target advertising with precision. This makes it valuable to advertisers.

Today Facebook is only second to Google in delivering online advertising. Together the two companies account for half of all mobile advertising. Their share is growing.

Advertising

Advertising is the media industry’s oxygen. With Facebook and Google sucking up an ever larger share, there is less, far less, left for publishers. And that means less to pay for journalists. In turn that means fewer valuable stories, less information, a less informed public.

Many media companies stopped fighting cat Gifs and click-bait. Instead they fill their channels with their own junk content in an attempt to protect market share.

Last year Facebook moved directly into the media space by launching Instant Articles. It is a technique to push out content faster. Instant Articles means media companies have to play ball with Facebook to make it work. That means sharing the thin advertising gruel with the online giant.

Media response

Many publishers have, in effect, yielded to Facebook. They are no longer masters of their own destiny. That’s risky, Facebook has its own agenda. It changes policy and strategy overnight. It does what it damn well pleases. It has never been a good partner.

Another risk is that Facebook acts as a censor. It has a prim approach that plays well with America’s mid-west, but doesn’t translate to other cultures. It gets to decide what is and isn’t allowed. Far right and extreme left views may not be acceptable. Conservative social opinions may not be tolerated.

Whether you agree with the censorship decisions or not, this leads to bland, homogenised media. It could mean important new ideas don’t get a proper hearing. It could send dangerous ideas further underground.

Until now, freedom of expression has always been a given online. That could go.

Not my friend

Facebook has a low reputation for trustworthiness by big company standards, mainly because it makes money from selling personal data to advertisers. It changes its own rules to suit its needs. Overnight private data can be made public. This is not the best organisation to filter and distribute news or other timely information.

It’s hard to avoid Facebook. But we need to stay wary and critical. I post my story links to Facebook, not being there isn’t a practical option. I wish it was. Perhaps even thinking that way makes me a dinosaur. If so, it’s a badge I wear with pride.


  1. If you need someone to write for your website get in touch.  ↩

There’s an objective side to reviewing technology products and services. There’s also an emotional side. I’m often interested in exploring how I feel about integrating technology into my work and life. It’s not something I write about often because it is so personal. One size does not fit all.

However, I’m aware that my emotional response to technology can be as important and significant as my intellectual response.

There’s one way for sure I know how I feel about a product or service. That’s my response as I pack the product for return at the end of a review period or what happens when I delete the software from devices.

I call this my ultimate device acid test.

If I’m busy calculating whether I can justify buying something, it’s a pass. If I feel a sense of loss as the courier speeds off down my road, it was a pass. If I’m glad to see the back of something, it’s a fail. If I’m indifferent, it’s, well let’s say a no score draw.