You Say You Want A [News] Revolution…

One’s consumption of daily news has run an interesting course.

In its heyday, television newscasts were relatively popular, and perceived as authoritative, balanced, and informative.  I wish I could say the same for the 24 hr news cycle, which is easily the biggest media-related atrocity of the last decade.  And while internet based news has become more and more popular, print media, such as magazines and newspapers have clung to their values, remaining largely unchanged, thereby insisting their format is flawless.

And perhaps it is.

If you don’t already get most of your news via the internet, you’re either moving in that direction, actively avoiding it,  or procrastinating adoption of it.  The TV newscast is an obsolete closed, specialized, filtered, biased, ad-driven, outlandish, sensationalist and overtly dramatic form of news delivery that I believe will see a decline in popularity as more people turn to news that’s centered around facts instead of drama.

Intriguing idea, don’t you think?

Well, nostalgists should celebrate.  Because while news consumption moves more and more to the internet, we’re quickly discovering that internet based news is not about video.  According to this recent study, only 12% of videos uploaded by users are news related.  Online news is about text, photos, and graphics casting shadows over (hopefully) short, informative video clips included only some of the time.  And now, with the popularity of RSS Feeds, people can follow many different news sources throughout the day using RSS Feed Readers as their News Aggregator.  If you’re into self discovery of the most up-to-date stories and aren’t using RSS Feeds, you’re seriously missing the boat.  RSS Feeds are currently the best way to compile various online news sources into one place.  Most websites offer RSS feeds today, and there are many different RSS Readers.

My parents read their paper in the morning; I check my Feeds.

However utopian my description may seem to imply, the current system is certainly not without its problems.

Headline Lists
Perhaps the biggest problem with RSS Readers is their addiction to the ‘Headline List’ format.  What would you do if the front page of the New York Times was just a list of the issue’s headlines?  This is a boring, ‘2.0’ style of news aggregation and we need progress.  Bad.  Unfortunately, many proposed solutions to this complaint present the second and third major problems with the current state of RSS Reading.

Repetition
Clearly, there is more than one place online from which one gets their news.  And often times, there may be several websites we enjoy that cover similar topics.  On the one hand RSS reading is great for this, as you can simply follow a dozen websites that cover a topic like Sports and feel as though you aren’t missing much in the world of Sports if you’re up to date on 12 different websites’ published content.  And you’d be right; that’s the beauty of the RSS format.  Instead of hearing what one or two or three networks choose to cover and air in my local area during their 30min dedicated to Sports, I can quickly browse a large range of dedicated Sports journalism, published to a global audience, on a global scale, and choose which stories interest me the most.

However, it becomes incredibly annoying when a major event occurs, (let’s say, this for example) and each one of the 12 or so websites I’m subscribed to via RSS publishes a story on the same event.  Of course it’s their duty to be reporting such a major event, but the user is left with an over abundance of identical news stories clogging up the RSS Reader, and getting in the way of other content.  And it’s not just 12 stories; many of these major events become ongoing, developing stories that last for days or weeks, while the user is forced to sift through stories related to this event when browsing for other news.  Anyone who follows a good number of Feeds will tell you that when some sort of major event occurs in their subscribed area of interest, it throws off the news for a few days, in a big way.  When the iPad launched I stopped reading the news for about a week because according to RSS world, it was the only thing that happened that week; just the way that if you watch Fox news you begin to feel that the only things occurring in the world are horrific deaths and accidents, coupled with a dramatic rise in socialism.

While much of this has a lot to do with the simple fact that news publishers love a good story, and want to milk it for all it’s worth, it would be great to see some sort of topic filtration that could take major news stories on the same event, including follow-up articles, and group them together as one.  Maybe RSS Readers could have an ‘Events’ tab that cruises headlines, trying to group similar or identical events together while also allowing the user to add new stories, that may slip past the software, to a particular ‘Event’, as well as tell the Reader that a story in the ‘Event’ may not actually belong there…

Anyway, this brings up the final big problem:

Filtering
There are a number of alternative-style RSS Readers that claim to compile your news in a much more rich format, comparing them to a newspaper, or magazine layout.  This seems like a good idea at first, but the result is either a horribly designed user interface, or the sense that the common assertion that such software will ‘Learn’ your favorite topics and present them in a more prominent way simply feels like your news is being filtered and edited.  Whether or not this is the case is somewhat irrelevant, as the winner in the game will be one that gets out of the users’ way, and allows clean access to a wide range of news sources.

The user already filters their news to taste by choosing which sites’ RSS Feeds to subscribe to. We don’t need software for this.   We don’t need some news to be more prominent than others, and we don’t need a rating system.  Does the New York Times think that they’d earn more money if they offered various formats of their paper, specialized for users that want to hear more about a particular subject?  No – it’s just a bad idea, and a software version of this format is a novelty at best.  Users don’t want to hear about a news event they missed because it became a tiny link as opposed to a giant icon on their RSS Reader simply because they never read or rated a movie review, or a political article, or whatever.  It’s just silly.  We want access to things we subscribe to to be relatively equal.

The Future
As I see it, we need an RSS Reader that displays everything we subscribe to, and allows us to choose what to read in a richer, more enjoyable way.

'Pulse' iPad app by Alphonso Labs

Alphonso Labs has recently released Pulse [iTunes Link],  a new iPad app which seems to be a step in the right direction.   While the app is still very new, and has clear limitations, Pulse provides a very rich, accessible interface that still manages to stay out of the way, and let the user feel that all of their subscriptions are being equally represented, which they are. This is not an endorsement of Pulse, but an endorsement of what I perceive to be a very worthwhile change, and one that’s been a long time coming.  I think this style, and perhaps this very app, can be seen as a platform for the future of news consumption.

Similar to the way the iPad’s design gets itself out of the way of the user, presenting nothing but a big multi-touch screen, and allowing the developer complete control of the look of the interface, the best RSS Reader will present the user with huge amounts of news in an equally representative, dynamic, unobtrusive way.

Summary
Consider the following:

  • News Consumption is shifting more and more towards the internet
  • Internet-based news is provided chiefly by way of RSS Feeds
  • RSS Feeds need RSS Readers
  • A de facto standard for the best RSS Reader has still yet to emerge, and current formats are still begging for reform
  • Apple sold an iPad every 3 seconds for the first 2 months following launch
  • iPad has been described as, and predicted to become, a user’s primary means to consume internet media

Clearly, the king of online news media consumption (sorry TyrannosauRSS Media, it’s not you, even though I used your creative icon) has not only yet to be named, but is openly accepting all applications for the job.  The crown will probably go to an iPad-centric app that addresses the concerns above, follows the lead of apps like Pulse, and changes the world.

Your move, developers.