Newsreader software continues to improve, allowing info-warriors better ways to find and assemble what they are looking for on the Web. RSS may be to the Web what TiVo was to TV. J.D. Lasica reviews the latest tools.
These days it’s not easy being an infowarrior. As the number of blogs and niche news sites continue to soar, how do you keep on top of everything?
While most Netizens still surf to Web sites to catch the latest postings, more users have found that to be a laborious, time-consuming way to browse. Instead they are installing “newsreader” software that constantly plucks feeds from Weblogs and news outlets and pulls them together onto a single screen.
That, in a nutshell, is RSS (short for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication). It’s a Web tool that lets you create a personalized news experience by building an ad hoc online network of friends, experts and news sources. Minutes after they post a new story or blog entry, it arrives on your screen as a headline and short summary or in its entirety. Call it “news that comes to you.”
After a couple of hours of subscribing to favorite feeds, your news grazing habits will be changed forever. Just as TiVo lets you watch TV more efficiently, RSS readers do the same by letting you scan your favorite blogs and news sites faster or letting you cast your net over a wider range of material.
RSS readers, first introduced in 1999, are still fairly new and need some time to mature. What would the perfect RSS newsreader of the future look like? I’d like to see my newsreader offer far more flexibility in letting me prioritize and rank feeds from different sources, perhaps giving more weight to The New York Times than blogger Glenn Reynolds — or vice versa. I’d like RSS feeds assigned to different reporters and columnists, so I could read their writings almost instantly. I want relevant graphics and images in my RSS feeds. I’d like a better interface between my RSS reader and Weblog software so I can comment on the news faster and easier.
Some or all of that may be coming in future generations of the tools. For now, current RSS readers still help me manage my time better. To help you get productive, we’ve listed the RSS feeds of some popular blogs and sites at the end of this article. (Some RSS programs come loaded with dozens of pre-installed channels.)
Speedreading the Net is just the first step. How do you archive, access and creatively use the news you come across? We’ve checked out a handful of other productivity tools you’ll likely find useful.
Use: RSS news reader for the PC
One-man software company Nick Bradbury, best known for the Web editing tools HomeSite and TopStyle, launched FeedDemon late last year and it has already become a favorite.
Like most newsreaders, FeedDemon requires you to subscribe to individual news feeds. If you do this once, you can import your subscriptions list to other newsreaders later on. FeedDemon uses a three-pane, browser-like interface. At the left is the list of channels you subscribe to. At the right are the headlines and summaries for each channel you click on. By clicking on a headline, a third pane displays the Web page where the headline originated.
Newbies sometimes get overwhelmed by subscribing to dozens of channels, each of which can offer a dozen or more headline offerings per day. As you become an RSS veteran, you’ll learn not to sweat it. Instead of surfing to and scrolling through a dozen or more blogs or news sites, you’ll simply scan the headlines that interest you, ignore the rest — and take control of your media environment. You can set the newsreader to scan for updates at specified times throughout the day, letting you know when there are new items waiting for your attention, cutting down on time spent on surfing.
Three FeedDemon features set it apart from some other newsreaders. You can set up a special “watch” channel that searches news items for specific keywords. You can copy items to a news bin for later reference. And you can choose to read your news in a format set up to resemble a newspaper page.
Use: RSS news reader for the Mac
Cost: NetNewsWire Lite is free; $39.95 for full version
NetNewsWire from developer Brent Simmons usually winds up atop any list of Mac users’ favorite newsreaders. The freeware Lite version is a good introduction to the RSS phenomenon. The setup is similar to other news readers: Subscribe to channels, which show up at the left of a browser pane; select a channel to see the latest news feeds at the right.
Both free and advanced versions of the program offer a sleek, simple interface, but the full version has several additional features, such as Weblog posting and editing. Any day now an upgrade will add new features, including tabbed browsing.
If you’re a Mac-head, NetNewsWire is all you need to get you up and running with RSS.
Other RSS news services
It’s best to sample several newsreaders to see which one fits your style. Some of these are free. For those that aren’t, always use the free trial before forking over your credit card. Here are several newsreaders that deserve a look:
If you have a Weblog, you’ll likely already have an RSS or XML feed. Blog software providers such as Blogger, MovableType, Radio Userland and TypePad offer them as standard fare. With an RSS feed, you don’t need to lift a finger to have your feed broadcast to others. Most blog software vendors provide this service automatically.
Trackle and Quickbrowse
Marc Fest, a journalist turned software entrepreneur in Miami, has created two applications that help info-junkies hunt down the news they want.
While a handful of other services retrieve content from different sources and reformat it on a personal news page that you have to visit, Quickbrowse preserves the original look of various Web pages and sends them to your inbox as one long scrolling HTML e-mail. For instance, you can subscribe to the front page of The New York Times’ Technology section, the Health section of The Christian Science Monitor, the sports wire of the Los Angeles Times, and a dozen of your favorite blogs.
I alternate between Quickbrowse and Trackle, a new application that strips out all graphics and typography and serves up a single text e-mail of up to 25 news sites and blogs. Trackle offers the additional advantage that it will retrieve only the text on a page that has changed since its last visit. Unlike news readers, which display only the beginning of a posting, Trackle gives you postings in their entirety. You can set Trackle to fetch Web pages once a day or at specified times throughout the day. Quickbrowse will relaunch around June 1 with lower pricing: $2.95 per month or $29.95 per year and it will come with a free Trackle account.
My favorite productivity program is ActiveWords, a handy little application for the PC that makes the machinery behind Microsoft Windows all but disappear. ActiveWords lets you devise a shortcut to navigate to a Web site or Weblog by tapping a couple of keys (no need to remember unwieldy URLs). It also helps you retrieve any file or launch any obscure program on your computer, or summon up a blank e-mail with the recipient’s address filled in. If you’ve stored hundreds of documents or Web pages on your hard drive and have a hard time remembering where you filed them in the maze known as the Windows folder hierarchy, ActiveWords can open them up with just a few keystrokes — and without a single mouse click. Just assign and remember a keyboard shortcut, such as “staci.” The coolest feature may be the “substitute text” feature, which lets you tap a couple of keys to call up a long string of text. Check it out, carpal tunnel candidates.
Remember the HotBot search engine? Its owner Lycos has discovered that one new frontier of search is not the Web, but the entrails of your PC. The HotBot Desktop utility indexes all the files on your computer, making every word in documents and e-mails fully searchable. A new feature is an RSS reader in the left pane of your Internet Explorer browser; Hotbot will index RSS feeds, so you can search your desktop for a blog posting you saw months ago. Hotbot Desktop is remarkably effective and, best of all, it’s free. (Tip: After indexing your files, you have to close and restart your browser.)
Other programs that will search your computer include X1 ($99), SearchGun ($19), Super Text Search ($29), Media Search ($25), Files Search Assistant ($60), FILEhand ($39) and Lookout, a Microsoft Outlook plug-in now in beta that provides lightning-fast search capabilities to your mailbox. Be advised that only single words — not phrases — can be retrieved in most of these programs.
Here are some RSS feeds you may find useful. Look for “RSS” or “XML” for the feed of a blog or news site, or head to a service like Syndic8. Don’t click through these links, simply copy and paste the URL into the “subscribe” field of your newsreader.
CJR’s Campaign Desk:
The New York Times on the campaign trail:
Christian Science Monitor World News:
Dan Gillmor’s eJournal:
Digital Media Jobs:
Yahoo Politics News (from AP, Reuters, Washington Post, USA Today and NPR):
Talking Points Memo:
160 Amazon feeds:
From Rolling Stone, a feed for your favorite artist:
New Media Musings (my blog):
The Smoking Gun:
Snopes.com Urban Legends: