What Does RSS Mean for Alt-Weeklies?

Little orange and blue buttons are popping up all over the Web. Labeled “RSS” (Really Simple Syndication) and “XML” (eXtensible Markup Language), they were once relegated to the blogosphere. No more. An increasing number of online media outlets are exploiting the not-so-new potential of these one-click wonders, each a portal to a newswire-style “feed.”

Every feed to which a Web-trawler subscribes is funneled into an RSS news aggregator, a piece of software or a remotely hosted service that periodically reads a set of news sources and displays them on a single page. (Here’s a Web page that rates RSS readers.) The information is delivered as an XML file. (An orange rectangle with the letters XML is often used as a link to a site’s RSS feed.)

By checking their RSS reader throughout the day, users always have the freshest updates and links from their favorite sites. Media outlets are beginning to realize that these feeds help drive more traffic to their sites.

“You want to get your message out to as many people as possible, and RSS is a great technology that allows you to do that,” says Karl Pearson-Cater, Web director of the Twin Cities’ City Pages. The paper has had RSS-enabled blogs on its site for more than a year, and Pearson-Cater plans to expand the technology to more editorial content within the next month — a feature that will most assuredly bring the site new readers and heavier traffic.

Businesses aren’t the only ones who benefit. RSS feeds supply users with a timesaving mechanism to free valuable hours that would otherwise be spent combing the Web for news. Subscribers can cherry-pick articles from a personally selected pool of news outlets and create an individualized, regularly updated information source.

Larger outfits like the New York Times offer tailored feeds (or channels) that relate to specific interests such as travel and health, serving to pare down the volume of content a user might receive were they required to download all of a given site’s new posts. Pearson-Cater plans to enable similar specialized feeds on the City Pages’ Web site. “It gives the users so much more control over the content and how they manage it,” he explains.

Alts line up at the feed-ing trough

Alternative newsweeklies are increasingly joining the legions of RSS-enabled media content sites. Several papers, such as NUVO and those owned by New Times Media and Village Voice Media, have already implemented the tool, and many more plan to do so in coming months. For the alternative press, RSS technology provides unique opportunities beyond increasing online visibility and site traffic.

By providing audiences with a steadier stream of information — connecting readers to a weekly’s updated content or to news from other sources — the feeds place weekly publishers on equal footing with their daily counterparts.

At City Pages, for instance, RSS disseminates Web-exclusive content featured on the member pages of its blog community, Twin Cities Babelogue. Blogs authored by the City Pages staff, such as the City Pages Blotter, are stocked with local news briefs as well as links to national news that are updated several times throughout the day — re-branding the paper that comes out on Wednesdays as a daily source of news.

Straying from the traditional headline-and-link-only style of most RSS feeds, the City Pages’ feeds feature the full text of each newly transmitted item — a better-suited design, Pearson-Cater says, for the short snippets of information that appear on the blogs. “It’s just moving in the direction of publishing daily [and] working with an online format as opposed to just posting a print piece” from the weekly, he says.

At Buffalo’s Artvoice, RSS is used to bring daily news to the paper’s audience from outside sources. In a section on the alt-weekly’s Web site called Breaking News, feeds from outlets such as Reuters and AlterNet provide hyperlinked headlines (sans story summaries) that direct the reader to the full text of the story on its originating site.

Though the paper has plans to expand its own RSS-enabled content, which currently includes only its blog, technical director Richard Suls says that he sees the feeds continuing to serve primarily as a conduit. “As far as RSS goes, I think that the fact that we aggregate news from various points and represent it to our users is a more important function of that particular technology for us,” he explains.

Some papers — like Long Island Press, which completely overhauled its site one month ago — are thinking big when it comes to using RSS. In addition to enabling feeds for the Web site’s editorial content in coming weeks, the paper has plans to launch its own branded RSS aggregator — a move that it hopes will maximize its potential as an informational clearinghouse that provides users with personalized pages.

Publisher Jed Morey says, “We had a very honest discussion last year and said, ‘Let’s make sure we don’t wind up like the railroads at the turn of the century, thinking that we’re in the railroad business and not the transportation business.'”

According to Morey, some news outlets don’t understand that they’re in the information business. “We have to give people as much as it is humanly possible for us to provide” in terms of both content and capability, he says. By providing the service, Morey says he hopes to hook some of the city’s untapped market of 18- to 34-year-olds. “We didn’t exist three years ago and the 18-34 demographic had already found the Web and they weren’t reading the daily, so to try and pull them back in the fold is really the goal of this.”

RSS also has the capacity to facilitate sharing between enabled sites. For smaller news outlets like some among the alternative press, this type of exchange could be an invaluable tool for broadening readership. It’s easy to envision a web of cross-pollination where sites use one another’s feeds to make their own online content more robust.

Morey says he’s open to future possibilities. “I think that there’s two ways of looking at this and one is, ‘I need to keep my content sacred — this is my proprietary information, and I can’t let anybody else print it.’ That’s very yesterday, but I think it’s how a lot of the dailies were able to create such a foothold in all these marketplaces. The real goal of information now is to share it. Share it with the world. That’s how things get out there.”

Still a few clicks short of perfect

Despite all its positive potential, RSS technology is not without its faults. Everyday users will likely download material for personal use. But some feeds will be funneled onto the screens of those who will re-post or re-distribute a paper’s original content without permission.

Pearson-Cater says he’s not too worried. “It happens now anyway, so it’s not any more of a concern than that. … I don’t really foresee that as too big of a problem. Most people who do end up ripping off the content do end up still linking to the original piece. That’s a good thing,” he says.

Morey agrees, quipping, “This is the information age and if it’s good enough for the New York Times, it’s good enough for me.”

Further, for all the increasing proliferation and interest in RSS feeds, the overall number of subscribers might not yet be large enough to justify the time and money it requires to implement and maintain an RSS-enabled site. Skeptics wonder if it ever will be. Others, like Morey, remain optimistic that it will soon be catching on in a big way.

“You have to take a step back and realize that most of the country is nowhere near this and just still wants their steady diet of printed news. So, did we dump a whole shitload of money into something that not many people are going to use for a little while? Absolutely. But we started the newspaper the same way three years ago … [and] I think it’s worth the wait.”

The Zen of RSS: Part of a whole

Some alt-weeklies see RSS technology as part of a broader effort to create an online presence that augments, rather than undermines, their print editions. Artvoice’s Web site, for example, features Web-exclusive content like video streams and extended entertainment listings that supplement its print edition. Coupled with RSS, these features have helped to increase traffic on the site from hundreds of hits per week to more than 1,000 per day.

“We’re trying not to compete with ourselves because that makes no sense. From day one we really weren’t looking to the Web to be self-sufficient in any way; it’s just a complement to the paper,” explains Andrew Davis, Artvoice art associate and Web master. “The paper still drives everything.”

Joy Howard is a freelance writer living in Amherst, Mass. A 2003 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism, she has written for Boston’s Weekly Dig, Cleveland Free Times and the San AANtonio Convention Daily.