As a journalist, keeping up with what’s going on in the world is an important part of your work. However, it can be challenging. Between websites, blogs, YouTube, social media and other online services, the volume of data journalists need to process each day is way beyond the amount of time we have available. That means we need to find ways to access and filter information in a time effective way. One such tool is RSS, or Really Simple Syndication.
In order to understand how RSS works, it’s a good idea to cover some basic background. This won’t be super technical but will give you a brief primer on how websites are built today. I promise this will be a technobabble-free zone.
A bit of history
In the olden days, when the Web was just a babe, websites were made up of a collection of pages. Each page was hand-crafted so if you wanted to change the look and feel of a site you had to visit each page and make the changes. As you can imagine, that got old fast. As sites became larger and more complex a different way to maintain websites was needed.
Some smart folks worked out that you could separate the look and feel of a website from the content. That meant that all the data (posts on blogs for example) could be held in a database. When someone accesses a page from your blog, what they are really doing is grabbing some specific data from the database of all your content. Then, it’s assembled into something attractive that uses some specific programming using stuff like HTML, CSS and other acronyms that are only meaningful to those who design website.
The important bit for us is that most websites store their data in a database. That means that if can find a tool that can grab content from the database automatically, without having to visit the site, we end up with a way of accessing content from lots of places without having to go to a bunch of different websites.
How RSS works
With the web-world having embraced databases, a subscription system became easily possible. It wasn’t long before a set of standards (which is the nerd word for rules) emerged so that software could be designed to grab content from website databases. This software is called either an RSS reader or aggregator.
One of the words that often scares off those new to RSS is “subscription”. As journalists, we’re accustomed to a subscription equating to a paid service. With RSS subscriptions are almost always free.
The only money you might outlay in using RSS is for the reader or aggregator software. However, there are so many excellent free options that we can’t see any reason to pay.
Start using RSS with Google Reader
Google Reader is a free service provided by Google. One of the great things about Reader is that most modern RSS readers can use a Reader account so that you can have a single, central collection of RSS subscriptions that can be accessed using just about any computer. If you’re happy using a web browser, Reader will work just fine. If you prefer to have a specific application installed to your computer, then it can access your Reader account.
Although the next little step-by-step guide uses Google Reader, most of the same steps apply to every RSS reader. At the end of the step-by-step there’s a gallery of screenshots for each step in the process.
Step 1 – Set up an account with Google. If you’ve got a GMail address (or Google Apps) account, this part is already done.
Step 2 – Go to Google Reader and sign in with your Google account
Step 3 – Let’s add a subscription. Most websites have some sort of Subscribe option. With Journo Advice it’s in the top menu and on the right side of every page. Click that link. A new page will open in your browser that looks like a slimmed-down version of the website. Highlight the web address in your browser and copy it.
Then, in Google Reader, click on the “Add a subscription” button. Paste the address into the small box that appears and hit the “Add” button.
Almost instantly, the new feed will appear in your Subscriptions list. The number and length of the items that are available through the site’s RSS feed is determined by the author. Some sites provide a full feed – all of the site’s content – while others only provide an excerpt of the full article. This is so you visit the main site, enabling the author to potentially derive some income.
What happens next?
As you add more feeds to Reader, you can categorise them into folders by using the “Feed Settings” button to create a folder and move the feed into it.
So, that’s a primer on RSS. Is there more you’d like to know? Ask your questions by sending a comment. It’s free!