AJR  Columns :     THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   February/March 2005

News la Carte   

An increasingly popular online tool lets consumers control their media diet, receiving headlines and summaries in a single location.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

Recently one of my Tivo-enhanced friends mused that he has no idea when his favorite shows air on TV or what networks they're on. He likes to watch "The Apprentice" on Friday evenings with a group of friends, and that's all he needs to know.

This must be misery for a network executive whose strategy depends on promotion and scheduling--not to mention the well-known advertising headaches Tivo has wrought. Put the viewer in control? Outrageous.

Now imagine online news working like that. Instead of visiting one site at a time and selecting stories from strategically organized homepages, people could pick the content that interests them with very little thought about where it was published or what appeared next to it.

Using a technology called RSS, many news Web sites now offer that option. Depending on whom you ask, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary--and it promises to be the next truly big innovation in electronic publishing. RSS is a method of extruding information from a Web site and making it available as a feed that can be viewed in an RSS reader, also known as a news aggregator. Some news aggregators deliver feeds to your e-mail inbox; others are stand-alone programs that run on your computer, and others are customizable Web pages.

In any case, you'll receive a collection of headlines and summaries from your favorite Web sites in a single, uncluttered, advertising-free location. If you select a headline, you will be taken to its Web page and exposed to any ads or other messages on that page; the advantage of the RSS reader is that you can scan the headlines of dozens of sites before deciding to go anywhere. It's like reading TV Guide instead of channel surfing.

The technology has been around for a while but only recently bubbled into the mainstream. By late December, more than 150 newspapers in the U.S. offered RSS feeds. At this point, it's a must-have feature. Most sites signify their feeds with an orange button labeled either "XML" or "RSS." Large news sites generally offer several RSS feeds for their content, organized by topic or section (such as www.nytimes.com/services/xml/rss). Smaller news sites might offer one XML feed for the entire site.

Technophobes, be brave: RSS is as easy as managing e-mail or setting up bookmarks. If you're a news junkie who scans several different sites once or twice a day, this will change your life. To dab a toe in the water, set up a personal page with my.yahoo.com and use the "Add Content" link to select from a collection of RSS feeds.

The simple efficiency of RSS should motivate a busy journalist to try it. It can also help you appreciate, from a user's perspective, the gradual but very real change in the way people access electronic and broadcast news, which is being unpackaged, disassembled, clipped and stripped of context. RSS and Tivo are two examples; news aggregation sites such as Google News and Yahoo! News were early steps in that direction. In December, both Yahoo! and blinkx.tv launched video services that will forage news sites' online video archives. You no longer need to visit a Web site's homepage to see what is has to offer: Clicking a headline in an RSS feed is equivalent to typing the headline's URL into a Web browser. (If you receive an RSS feed from a site that requires registration or a subscription, you will probably hit the login page when you click the headline.)

Tools that help viewers bypass a site's homepage will certainly influence the way Web managers think about design. Now every page on a site should be treated as a homepage since it could be the first--or only--page a viewer sees. We can expect more marketing messages, advertisements and teases on internal pages. Viewers who preview a site's headlines before visiting will probably click through fewer pages and see fewer ads, but the efficiency of RSS may encourage them to visit more often. And it's only a matter of time before text ads begin appearing between headlines in the feeds themselves.

The biggest implication may be for conventional ideas about promotion and branding. Brand loyalty is still valuable, but today's shrewd consumers are less loyal and more responsive to present-day performance. In an environment where people can compare coverage from competing newsrooms side by side, the very best way to cultivate affinity will be timely, reliable, complete information. That, I hope, will be received by the news industry as a good thing.

This movement is gradual; it will take awhile for news consumers to embrace the new technologies available to them and change their habits--particularly those who've held their habits for a long time. But we should all be prepared for a coming generation of readers, viewers and surfers who expect to access information on their own terms.