‘I’m not dead yet': How to use RSS effectively

Screen Shot 2013-07-21 at 8.50.10 AMWhen Google announced it was killing Reader, some pundits wondered whether the move might mean the demise of RSS as well.

Let me channel a little Monty Python so we don’t throw RSS — the original push technology that delivers content to users — on the death cart just yet.

‘I’m not dead yet’

In the days before social media became our primary filters, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) had been the primary way to manage the firehose of Internet information. Let me humbly suggest that we should keep RSS in our media mix.

Facebook filters its news feed, and we’re apt to miss important stories in the sea of updates and snapshots from friends and family. Twitter works more effectively, but content moves so quickly — especially if you follow more than 100 accounts — it can be difficult to keep up. And if you miss a day? Forget trying to catch up.

Enter RSS.

What is RSS?

An RSS feed is an .xml file that has content specifically formatted for programs that can interpret the specialized markup. Just as browsers can turn HTML into Web pages with pictures and formatted text, RSS readers can decipher the .xml and turn it into a readable summary of the latest content from sites you subscribe to.

Most sites — especially news sites like NPR and the New York Times — still have RSS feeds built into their sites, allowing users to subscribe to the site’s content. And often, the feeds are customized by topic or interest:

NYTimes RSS feeds

Once you find the page of feeds, click through to the feed itself so that you see the link to the .xml file in your address bar. This link is what you’ll need to copy into your RSS reader. If your browser is RSS-aware, it may offer to subscribe to the feed for you.

Why RSS?

At first glance, RSS seems a lot like a Twitter feed: Headlines and blurbs, with links to full articles. But RSS feeds are  updated every time new content is added to the site; that’s not always true of a site’s social-media presence.

A good RSS reader usually gives you a bit more than a social-media blurb. Some pull in pictures and provide ways for you to save stories or share them with your social networks. Often, the blurbs are longer than 140 characters, and you can consume content more completely.

After Google wrote Reader’s obituary, I latched onto Feedly, a free cross-platform reader that works well with Google Chrome and Apple’s mobile devices.

Feedly Reader

I’ve changed my morning routine to start with Feedly. The site allows you to designate certain feeds as “must-reads,” which prevents you from missing the latest posts from your favorite blog. It also makes it easy to organize feeds into categories to create your own magazine of sorts.

The site provides an effective recommendation engine as well. I’ve added more than a few feeds suggested after Feedly saw what types of content I had subscribed to.

More than subscriptions

RSS feedsBut RSS feeds are not limited to subscriptions.

For starters, you can add a WordPress widget that will post headlines from an RSS feed on your blog’s sidebar. It’s a great way to provide fresh, updated content from around the Web.

And Twitterfeed (among others) allows you to take content from RSS feeds and deliver them straight to Twitter or other social medium.

Yes, RSS may be an older technology, but old doesn’t mean useless. Before you dismiss RSS, try it with your favorite sites, and see how much more you discover and learn.

#jcarn: Measuring journalism

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft.

This month’s prompt:

What’s the best way — or ways — to measure journalism and how?

The root of journalism is truth, and the time-tested method that journalists have to uncover that truth is verification. If we want to measure journalism, it must begin here.

Respected journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explored this idea more than a decade ago as part of their work with the Committee of Concerned Journalists, which they codified in their book The Elements of Journalism. As they noted, what sets journalists apart from every other type of content creator — entertainer, technologist, pundit — is verification.

Simply put, verification is checking out everything with multiple sources. I think of the adage I learned early in my journalism career:

If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

It’s only semi-facetious. It doesn’t mean your mother is a liar. It just means she may not be quite accurate.

Maybe she wasn’t talking to you.

Maybe her definition of “love” doesn’t jibe with conventional wisdom.

Maybe she’s not really your mother.

In today’s environment of the immediate and the ephemeral, it’s ever more important to verify the drive-by comments, the frenetic machine gun of news. It’s too easy to retweet, reblog, or republish what’s happening with the claim that the rush of information requires us to be first rather than accurate.

What does the audience want?

What’s clouding journalism today is the need for audience. In such a fragmented environment, how do we generate enough interest — in terms of page views, time spent on site, or other measures of engagement — to secure advertising to pay the bills?

We tap into Google Trends and try to SEO our headlines and content to lure people to our website. We crank up the level of content with frequent updating — sometimes including links to hot content that we haven’t independently verified. The goal is noble: Get them to our site so they can see our real, verified journalism.

But some pockets of experimentation are turning that idea on its head. Gawker has begun finding that original content may be generating more meaningful connections than its SEO junk. Salon recently noted its recent upsurge in traffic came from abandoning the aggregation gold rush. And ProPublica has figured out how to win Pulitzer Prizes and remain financially viable (PDF) without buying into the hype.

Maintaining credibility

As Philip Napoli notes in his book Audience Evolution, a large audience may not be the most engaged. In the age of social media, a small but motivated group can make a big noise.

But the information has to be accurate. Witness the backlash regarding Invisible Children and the #stopkony campaign. After the initial rush of eye-candy addicts, more thoughtful writers began questioning the group’s methods, spending, and accuracy.

Even credible, well-read organizations such as Mashable fall into this trap. The all-things-social-media site recently posted an item with the misleading title “Top 10 Social Media-Savvy Universities [STUDY].” As you dig deeper into the study, you find that the list is actually drawn from already culled list of 25 UK universities and 25 U.S. universities.

Even the study’s author notes this clarification in the comments of the story:

Journalism’s value/impact can come from reaffirming its role as the verifier without agenda. Places such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact serve as role models for our aspirations of verification.

Measuring verification

Measurement assumes quantification, and some ideas — such as verification — are better evaluated qualitatively. Creating a measure requires including some attributes and excluding others; inevitably, such measures are always imperfect approximations, especially when it comes to complex concepts.

But we can establish a few expectations, with a little help from Kovach and Rosenstiel:

  • Transparency: Where did the information come from? Are you transparent about your sources? Post your spreadsheets through Google Docs and your documents on DocumentCloud. Embrace an open-source ethic. Disclose what you were unable to confirm.
  • Consistency: Test information from every source, even your mother. Don’t rely exclusively on secondary sources; check the primary information yourself to ensure it is presented accurately with context.
  • Context: Link to sources you’ve used to verify your content, and provide access to full interviews to bolster confidence that you’re not cherry-picking information to support an agenda. Make sure you’re representing all nuances and resisting the urge to simplify everything to two sides.

Italian schoolteacher Tommaso De Benedetti turned humilating news organizations into an art form with his mock Twitter accounts of Harmid Karzai, Bashar al-Assad, and other world leaders. He found that some news organizations quickly retweeted information without verification — including news that Fidel Castro had died.

In his interview with The Guardian, he may have created the journalistic warning for the Internet age: “Twitter works well for deaths.”

Or maybe we should craft a new adage:

If your mother tweets her death, check it out.

Free surfing: Where does your brain go?

It usually happens on a Sunday morning, in the quiet of the solitary kitchen.

The house is asleep. The coffee is fresh. The sun is rising. And I humbly drift through the Web, aimlessly consuming content insightful and insipid.

It’s not anything I intend to do. I usually start by reviewing Google+ or scanning the New York Times home page or clicking on a link from a friend’s e-mail or tweet. Suddenly, 45 minutes have passed, 10 tabs are open on my browser, and the thought flashes: “How did I get here?”

This type of experience in part inspired Nicholas Carr’s writing The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a book I expected to dislike but instead found exhilarating. Instead of a cherry-picking screed railing against technology, it’s a thoughtful exploration of what we know — and have yet to learn — about how this interconnected, plugged-in life is affecting us.

Since reading it, I find myself stopping every once in a while and retracing my technological steps. Too many times, I’ve passively accepted my consumption like a French-fry carnivore at McDonald’s.

So this past Sunday morning, with browser tabbed to capacity, I found myself wondering once again, “How did I get here?”

WordPress

Each morning, I compile a list of local headlines for my community news site, SGFNews.org, which I’ve set up at WordPress.com.

Unfortunately, when I log into WordPress, I get the dreaded Freshly Pressed screen, a pleasantly presented buffet of images, blog titles, and headlines seductively gesturing to be clicked.

This morning, my eyes were drawn to a screenshot from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II,” one of my favorite movies from the past year.

Cut the Crap Movie ReviewsBeing a movie buff, I clicked on the link to Cut the Crap Movie Reviews, an entertaining blog of short reviews. It was a fruitful detour; I had not heard of half of the movies on the list.

Google+

Weekends are my time to delve into media trends and research. It’s also my time to catch up with neglected social media such as Google+ and Pinterest (my primary medium is Twitter).

This morning, I logged into my Google+ account for the first time in a couple of weeks. One of the first headlines posted by Dan Gillmor, noted journalist and media thinker, caught my attention:

I did not immediately make the connection, but the article reminded me that Zaslow co-wrote The Last Lecture, the story of Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who gave an inspiring talk about life’s lessons. The Wall Street Journal also noted Zaslow’s dedication to his wife and daughters, significant details that touched me as a husband and father.

Another Google+ headline from Wired caught my eye:

Privacy has become a flashpoint for me — it’s one of the reasons I use Facebook only while holding my nose — and I shared the article on Google+ and Twitter without hesitation.

Using Google+’s feed-view buttons, I then focused on updates from Friends. My research partner Carrie Brown-Smith led me to two fascinating pieces: The WeMedia.com PitchIt Challenge offering $50,000 for digital-media startups and an Advertising Age article about studying brand perceptions of online consumers.

I briefly considered the possibility of pitching my community news site to the challenge. I also hovered over the Advertising Age comments and thought of criticizing the headline “GE Study Proves Consumers Respond More to Shared Content,” as studies do not prove hypotheses. But thought did not turn to action, and I returned to my Google+ stream.

Next came a blog post titled “And Deliver Us From Distraction: Understanding Resistance to Media Life,” from Seth Lewis, an insightful media scholar at the University of Minnesota I’ve gotten to know in the academic world.

But the blog post wasn’t the only thing lighting up my brain. The site design was interesting, and I noticed the design was created by one of the blog’s co-writers, Joshua Braun, another media scholar.

At his site, he highlighted one of his published papers that fit right in with a study I’m working on. I headed to our university library site and found the paper, “Hosting the Public Discourse, Hosting the Public.”

Sexist startups

My last intellectual side road came courtesy of Kathy Gill, a sharp educator at the University of Washington whom I have connected with through the Carnival of Journalism blog group.

I clicked on the post by Dan Shapiro that recounted a disrespectful introduction of Rebecca Lovell as she was about to moderate a panel on funding startups. The man introducing her said:

Rebecca’s one of the smartest ladies I know, and I thought that she was a perfect pick for the role of moderator.  When we selected Rebecca and she said yes, she was a sexy single woman. And since that time, she’s become a sexy married woman, and so I wanted her lucky new spouse to stand up.  So we’ve got not only a very talented, but a happy moderator.

The post struck a chord with me. I am continually amazed that in 2012 we still hear this kind of — as Shapiro put it — crap. Did we not leave this behind with the age of the Mad Men?

The next item I clicked on from Gill’s stream involved storytelling with infographics. As one of my classes has to create an infographic as an assignment this semester, I thought the post would be particularly useful, and I saved it to my Diigo account.

And then the thought hit me: “How did I get here?”

What I learned

Thinking about my free surf led me to a few conclusions:

  • Free surfing can be insightful: In an hour of surfing, I had discovered a couple of helpful articles for my classes, a paper for one of my research projects, and a potential grant source for my community news site.
  • Emotions drive clicks. In some instances, the provocative subjects lured me during the free surf. Perhaps sadness was lingering from the news of Whitney Houston’s death, but I clicked on the Zaslow piece and the startup post partly because of visceral reactions to the content.
  • Sharing equals power. “Free surf” is a misnomer; I had several trusted guides from my social network leading me to useful content. In fact, most of my content discovery comes through this method (usually through Twitter instead of Google+). And I shared a few of the items I found with my own networks.
  • The stream induces anxiety. As someone whose stock in trade is information, I find that the constant exposure to an ever-growing influx does spark a sense of anxiety: How do I keep up with all of this? How can I accomplish everything I need to get done?

Does this experience jibe with yours? Where do your free surfs lead you in the silence of a Sunday morning?

#jcarn: Video as a form of verification

Note: This post is another installment for the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft.

—–

The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.

The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel

Of the elements enumerated by Kovach and Rosenstiel in their seminal book, I believe verification is the most central to what we do as journalists. What sets us apart from the legions of content creators is the ethic of verify, verify, verify.

To that end, online video is a vital component of that puzzle.

In a previous Carnival of Journalism entry, I recounted my own tale of online video gone awry and noted that it’s dangerous to dedicate too many newsroom resources to video when my research has found that what’s most critical to people who choose the Internet as their primary source for news is frequency of updating.

Despite my doomsday assertion, I didn’t mean to convey that video has no place on a news site. On the contrary: It’s complementary content that provides another layer of verifiable evidence for users. It builds trust and credibility. And it includes users in the journalistic process.

For breaking news, that means raw video from the scene, the bits and pieces that are typically fashioned into a video story. On a churn-and-burn news site, with regularly updated headlines, people want the information quickly. It’s much easier to scan headlines and lists than sit through a 2- to 3-minute video story, especially if they’re at work or standing in line scanning their smartphone.

Video strips users of control. They’re held captive by a linear narrative determined by the journalist. An unedited video, however, allows them a glimpse of the raw dough of journalism. It makes them part of the process; they can evaluate the evidence on their own, much as a database permits them to crunch the numbers themselves.

And the unfettered roll from news sources can be more compelling than that of journalists.

Take this sample from the May 22 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo. Shortly after the disaster, the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader took a video camera along with other equipment and included video coverage to complement its copious print coverage. It’s a good sample of images that gives the viewers a sense of being there.

Still, I wonder about the amount of time to shoot, edit, and create an online-only video, although this video is straightforward and free of the usual time-intensive broadcast cuts and overlays. I also hate having to sit through an ad (even a 20-second one) before I get the details.

I found the first-person account of a survivor far more compelling and worth my while online:


I could get the core facts (number of dead and missing, efforts of rescue workers, etc.) more quickly from the written news story and photos.

And the raw survivor video was the one I linked to on Twitter and watched repeatedly.

Be your own follower: Turning an RSS feed into a Twitter buddy

My first instinct after discovering a thought-provoking blog is to follow the author on Twitter — unless he or she isn’t on Twitter.

Yes, I know. Not on Twitter?! Are you serious? Unfortunately, not everyone shares my love of the social medium.

These days, I scroll through Twitter much more often than the mass of RSS feeds in my Google Reader. Twitter has become my primary source for news and information.

But there’s a solution to this conundrum: Create your own Twitter stream of non-tweeters using their RSS feeds.

Here’s how:

1. First, set up a new Twitter account to serve as the delivery stream for your feeds. (I created an account with the brilliantly creative moniker @grovesfeeds.)

Twitterfeed2. Sign up for a feed-delivery service such as Twitterfeed, which feeds RSS streams into your Twitter account. A variety of services offer this functionality; I use Twitterfeed because it’s free, easy to use, and allows you to add prefixes and suffixes to posts. Twitterfeed also lets you time your posts so you don’t get a flood of tweets crowding your Twitter stream.

3. Link your feeder account to your new Twitter account so it can automatically post new links.

4. When you find a Twitterless blog, search for the site’s RSS feed. When you click on the link, it will take you to a feed page. Copy this link from the address bar.

The RSS link on Poynter's Mobile Media site

 

5. Paste the URL of the feed into your Twitterfeed account. You can access features such as update frequency and post prefixes by clicking on the arrow by “Advanced Settings.”

6. Once you’ve entered the feed, proceed to the “Publishing Services” step, and choose Twitter.

7. Check your Twitter account to make sure the feed is appearing in the stream.

Thus far, I’ve added five feeds to my @grovesfeeds account. I get the added bonus of knowing most of these links are clickworthy because I’ve personally selected these feeds for delivery.

The most powerful tweet in the world: Chuck Norris, the iPhone 4 and @ceoSteveJobs

Most tweets exist in the Twittersphere for a few hours. They enter followers’ streams with dozens of others, soon to be cleared out by the latest links, thoughts, and observations of other Twitterers.

Some may last a bit longer in the form of retweets. But a rare few survive for weeks as retweeted retweets, restatements, and reiterations.

Such was the case with a recent tweet about Chuck Norris and the iPhone 4.

I first saw this tweet a couple of weeks ago as a retweet of the parody account @ceoSteveJobs, who tweeted on Aug. 10:

The tweet had the right mix of timeliness, humor, and universality, three critical criteria for anything to go viral.

A strange thing then began to happen. I noticed people began appropriating this tweet as their own, without giving credit. I saw it in my stream as “original” content. I also noticed it among self-proclaimed tech gurus.

I’m sure such repetition happens often on Twitter, but here, the Twittersphere began policing itself. People challenged the copiers and demanded that they give credit through retweeting or the “via” tag.

Bartlett responded with a tweet explaining he had overheard the comment from a friend and tweeted it.

Like a Chuck Norris action hero, the tweet kept on going as aggregators embraced the meme, again without sourcing the original tweet.

Then, like the old game of Telephone, the tweet began to morph into new iterations. People with dozens of followers tweaked the words, and the tweet began life anew in retweet after retweet.

@davidrisley posted this form on Aug. 18, a full week after @ceoSteveJobs:

A couple of days later, it spread in other languages, to other countries.

By this point, I became curious how long a tweet could linger. I’ve been on Twitter for almost three years, and I can’t remember a tweet with such a long lifespan. So I began digging.

Lo and behold, @ceoSteveJobs was not the original creator.

I found a tweet from June 25 crafted by @vowe, a consultant and systems architect from Darmstadt, Germany, with more than 1,600 followers. His tweet had been retweeted more than 100 times.

Is it the original most powerful tweet? Only the Twittersphere knows.

(Note: This post focuses on tweets surviving in real time on Twitter proper. Some do live on for months and years in web archives and leaderboard-type sites such as Favstar.)

G20 vs. the World Cup: A tale of two Twitters

If you glanced at Twitter this weekend, you found the trending topics consumed by World Cup mania. At a glance, you could quickly grasp the mood of the worldwide audience as they tweeted about various players, plays, and calls.

While England and the U.S. were losing, however, Toronto was recovering from rioting and street clashes related to the G20 summit.

Amid the usual news photos and articles chronicling the chaos, Twitter once again proved itself an invaluable live-reporting tool.

Among the most notable streams was that of Steve Paikin, an Ontario-based television journalist who witnessed the beating and arrest of fellow reporter Jesse Rosenfeld of The Guardian.

The live tweets speak for themselves (start from the bottom):

Paikan stream

His account ends abruptly:

Paikan tweet

This kind of narrative, with simple bursts of instantaneous thought, convey the intensity of an event unlike other methods. Paikin’s reports could also spread virally — 64 people had retweeted this note within hours of his posting.

Some raise questions about such unverified reporting leaching out so quickly. But as with the World Cup masses, there seems to be a Wikipedia-esque quality to live-tweeting of events such as the G20 meeting. The mass of tweets should root out the inaccuracies, and those who tweet unreliably will lose followers in the long run.
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The rule of engagement: Be authentic

Confession: I am an Internet idealist.

I first started using the medium in 1993, when Gopher was cutting edge and people used Lynx browsers to explore the World Wide Web. Back then, people shared information via newsgroups and listservs, and swapped shareware at FTP sites. It was a communal era, before the dot-com gold rush struck.

In many ways, we are at a similar point with social media.

Most of these sites began as a way to connect and build communities around shared interests. Few worried about returns on investment or social-media strategies. Now, the prospectors are flooding the social space.

Unfortunately, many are missing one key element when they “get on Facebook” or “jump into Twitter”: authenticity.

It isn’t about amassing a huge number of followers or friends, which can raise its own issues. It’s about being transparent and honest, engaging with community members on their terms.

Since 2008, I’ve spent many hours — probably too many, by my wife’s accounting — on Twitter, learning the ways of the Twitterverse and trying to understand the whys and hows of engagement.

Over that time, I have developed a framework for thinking about authenticity and levels of engagement on Twitter:

I see connectivity as a deeper, more emotional communication need than information. And two-way communication — conversation — establishes a greater sense of engagement than one-way communication, or lecturing. (For more on the importance of conversation in the new-media environment, check out the excellent Journalism as a Conversation blog).

  • Level I: One-way, information. These are the tweet blasts: “Hey, folks, I’m on Twitter. Here’s my random tidbit. Take it or leave it.” In some cases, these can be useful. I love @nytimes for my news. But the account ignores my @replies and has no interest in following little ol’ me.
  • Level II: One-way, connectivity. These are the links that provide value beyond self-promotion, the ones that tell your followers, “This is for your benefit.” Think @amazonmp3 with daily download specials or @Twitter_Tips with links to sharp commentary about the medium.
  • Level III: Two-way, information. Retweeting is a deeper form of engagement than mere links. It says, “I’m listening to you, and I think what you say is valuable.”
  • Level IV: Two-way, connectivity. @replies and direct messages are Twitter conversations that inspire the deepest level of engagement. It shows you are actively participating in the community and acknowledge the value of the communal conversation.

Reaching Level IV is no small task. It takes time, dedication, and most of all, a willingness to open yourself up to the Twitterverse, accepting of its praise and its criticism.

Twitter Search: The real-time pulse of the world

In an unadvertised corner among Twitter’s servers is a site that allows users to capture the real-time pulse of the world on any phrase, topic, or idea.

It is known as Twitter Search, and it provides an interface with Google-like simplicity for discovering what people are saying about anything from the Tiger Woods debacle (ack!) to health-care legislation (or the lack thereof).

The best part is that Twitter has built in feed capabilities to the site.

A large part of Twitter’s power stems from its ability to aggregate mass sentiment from the public sphere (largely because of its 140-character limit). We seek to connect with the world, especially with large events such as the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Twitter Search allows us to focus more clearly on certain aspects of the public psyche.

With the RSS capability, Web designers can develop a variety of tools — whether it be a simple update widget or more complex mash-ups — to understand how the public is engaging on a particular topic or issue.

NBC tapped into this function to create an Olympic Twitter tracker, which gauges in real-time what people are saying about Olympic stars and events.

Combined with word clouds, the tracker offers a creative interface for navigating Twitter’s Olympic conversation. And NBC smartly incorporates an easy-to-update Twitter interface with a link to its tracker. What better way to become part of the public sphere than making it easy to spread the word?