RSS in the Mainstream Media

For all intents and purposes, RSS is still an extremely new technology. Bloggers, often viewed as being on the cutting edge of such things, are still struggling to determine how to best use the tool to distribute their works.

But as hot as the debate is among bloggers, it is even more heated in the mainstream media. With millions of dollars invested in content creation and a root that is still firmly in the print and broadcast world, the traditional purveyors of news have far more to weigh when creating their RSS strategies.

So what decisions have they made? How have they decided to use RSS to distribute their content across the Web? In this article I’m going to evaluate twelve of the biggest names in the mainstream media and how they use this new technology.

Preface

Before delving into the analysis, a few caveats.

First, the RSS feed count is NOT a total count of all the feeds available on a site, but rather, the approximate number of feeds the company actively promotes. Many sites offer feeds not actively promoted and some offer custom RSS services akin to Technorati. Those are not counted.

Second, there is a difference between a synopsis feed and a partial feed. A partial feed pulls its content from the article itself where a synopsis feed is a specially-written summary for the feed itself.

Keep that information in mind as you read the details below.

Wire Services

AP Logo

Number of Feeds: 13
Style: Partial
Length: Less than fifty words.
Using FeedBurner: No
Autodiscovery on Home Page: No
Notes: The AP doesn’t seem very interested in RSS. It promotes 12 feeds actively plus another “Featured Feed” on their RSS page. The RSS page also contains some very basic subscription help and a very strict TOS that blocks almost all reuse of content. To make matters worse, there is no feed connected with the home page of their site and you have to look closely to find the link to the other feeds. Though they offer feeds for every section of the site, it is clear that they are not a featured product.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 3

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Number of Feeds: 43
Style: Partial
Length: One Paragraph
Using FeedBurner: Yes
Autodiscovery on Home Page: Yes
Notes: RSS clearly plays a much larger role on the Reuters site. Not only do they offer 43 feeds, but their “Top News” feed is available via autodiscovery on their home page. Also, their RSS page is clearly marked in the sidebar with both text and an the RSS icon. They also offer very clear subscription instructions, which are further supported via the FeedBurner pages, and a clear terms of service.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 6

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Number of Feeds: 1 (English)
Style: Partial
Length: One Paragraph
Using FeedBurner: No
Autodiscovery on Home Page: Yes
Notes: RSS clearly isn’t a big deal to the world’s oldest news agency. It offers only one feed, which can be autodiscovered on their home page, and a concise terms of service for it on their RSS page. All in all, their RSS strategy seems to be a complete void.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 2

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Number of Feeds: 18
Style: Partial
Length: One Paragraph
Using FeedBurner: No
Autodiscovery on Home Page: Yes
Notes: UPI’s RSS page is clean, concise and has a decent number of feeds. Unfortunately, their link link to a request form to use their feeds on your site seems to be broken, linking back to their home page.The page itself works fine though, even if it is devoid of any effective RSS information and only contains a handful of chicklets for guidance.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 4

Television

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Number of Feeds: 28
Style: Headline/Partial
Length: One Paragraph
Using FeedBurner: No
Autodiscovery on Home Page: Yes
Notes: Finding CNN’s RSS page is no small feat. However, it is not worth the effort. Though it contains, a good number of feeds, some decent explanation of RSS and a robust, if perhaps overly thorough, terms of service, the feeds are a disappointment. They alternate between headline-only and partial feeds, making them very difficult to use, even in a vanilla RSS reader.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 4

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Number of Feeds: 26
Style: Synopsis
Length: One Sentence
Using FeedBurner: No
Autodiscovery on Home Page: No
Notes: The BBC’s home page does not have an autodiscovery feed and the link to their RSS page is fairly buried. However, the content on the page is very good, including a decent number of feeds, a clear terms of service and instructions of making custom feeds. They also have prominent links to other services including mobile alerts, email newsletters and podcasts. Though I am not sure how I feel about the synopsis feeds, my biggest issue is that they do not promote their feeds more.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 6

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Number of Feeds: 15
Style: Synopsis/Partial
Length: One Sentence
Using FeedBurner: Yes
Autodiscovery on Home Page: Yes
Notes: Fox News readers must not use RSS heavily. The Fox News RSS page seems to be hastily thrown together with a very heavy-handed license that, while allowing reuse of their feed, places a lengthy set of restrictions. The feeds themselves are strange. Some stories seem to use the first paragraph from the story itself, others seem to be a synopsis.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 4

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Number of Feeds: 147
Style: Synopsis
Length: One Sentence
Using FeedBurner: No
Autodiscovery on Home Page: Yes
Notes: Visiting the MSNBC RSS page can be very overwhelming. The page is actually spread across four sub-pages and contains a whopping 147 feeds. Though the page has some very good information about how to use RSS, it is strangely devoid of any terms of use. The feeds themselves are unique in that they include images embedded in them. The text is, generally, a short one-sentence synopsis of the article though some seemed to pull from the opening paragraph.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 6

Newspapers

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Number of Feeds: 68 (Plus 15 Podcasts)
Style: Synopsis/Partial
Length: One Sentence/Approx. 50 Words
Using FeedBurner: No
Autodiscovery on Home Page: Yes
Notes: The New York Times RSS page is a robust collection of RSS feeds framed by good information about RSS and a solid terms of service. The site even offers a tool to embed their headlines into your site. Their feeds alternate between providing a one-sentence synopsis for news articles and a 50-word partial feed for blog entries.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 7

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Number of Feeds: 184
Style: Synopsis/Partial
Length: One Sentence/One Paragraph/Several Paragraphs
Using FeedBurner: No
Autodiscovery on Home Page: No
Notes: The Washington Post claims to have over 150 RSS feeds on their RSS page. but a quick count locates a total of at least 184. The page itself includes some great information about subscribing to RSS feeds but no information regarding a terms of use. The main feeds themselves are synopsis feeds and, on rare occasion, include images. Some of the smaller feeds are partial encompassing the first paragraph and some of the opinion feeds seem to encompass several paragraphs of the entry, though never the whole item.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 7

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Number of Feeds: 123
Style: Partial
Length: One Paragraph
Using FeedBurner: No
Autodiscovery on Home Page: Yes
Notes: The London Times RSS page is a lengthy list of well over 100 feeds in a variety of categories. The page includes some basic information on how to subscribe to RSS feeds though a terms of use is strangely missing. The feeds themselves are pretty cut and dry partial feeds using the first paragraph of the original article, this is true in all cases. The system could stand some improvement, but is overall pretty solid for MSM.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 6

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Number of Feeds: 25
Style: Synopsis
Length: One Sentence
Using FeedBurner: No
Autodiscovery on Home Page: Yes
Notes: It is hard to tell exactly how many RSS feeds The Guardian has. It doesn’t display all of its feeds on its RSS page and, instead, sprinkles most of them throughout the site. The number above only represents the number promoted on the above page. Their RSS page, however, does provide some very basic information on subscribing to a feed though there is no information about a terms of use. The feeds themselves are straightforward one-sentence synopsis feeds.
RSS-Friendly Rating: 6

Trends

When looking at the evidence above, several trends become evident.

  • Feed Usage: Of all the MSM sites I visited, including some not in this report, all used RSS to some capacity. The MSM is not ignoring RSS, though their strategies may need additional work.
  • Partial Feeds: Every site of the twelve used partial or synopsis feeds exclusively. Though the Washington Post gave away more of its content than others, none used full feeds.
  • Reuse Permission: Every site that included a terms of service, save the AP, authorized some republication of their feed. However, in all cases that republication was limited to non-commercial sites and done in a way that could impede some Web-based RSS readers.
  • Limited FeedBurner Use: Only two of the services, Reuters and Fox News, made use of FeedBurner. The rest, it appears, chose to go it alone.
  • Newspaper Dominance: I expected the wire services to be stingy with their feeds. Since they are in the business of selling syndicated content, they won’t want to give much away for free. But newspapers trumped even television networks by providing more feeds of higher quality. RSS is a natural transition from the print to the Web world and most newspapers seem to be making the jump better than most seem to think.
  • Conclusions

    There weren’t many surprises for me as I sought to compile this list. The fact that the mainstream media is being very stingy with what it puts into its RSS feeds should shock no one reading this.

    However, it is clear on closer examination that at least most of these companies are actively courting RSS subscribers and some are doing it somewhat well. It is clear that these companies do have an RSS feed strategy and are executing it.

    Though we often think of the mainstream media as being dinosaurs in the digital age, they do seem to be making very real, if imperfect, efforts to catch up. Even though I didn’t feel comfortable giving any of the sites above a “7” for their RSS friendliness, the quality of effort was still higher than I expected.

    Now, if we could just overcome this pesky use of partial feeds, we might have something that even the staunches RSS reader can enjoy.

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