Why Newspapers Must Embrace RSS

Last week, Research Recap featured a Forrester study entitled "The Fragmentation Of Yesterday’s

Newspaper". A mention of RSS feeds piqued my interest, and Forrester was kind enough to send me a copy today.

The conclusions of the report are, I think solid. Online, newspapers should be aggregators as well as publishers: they shouldn’t restrict themselves to their own content. Similarly, newspapers shouldn’t restrict their content to their own sites: they should be much more active when it comes to syndiation. (Dear John Thain makes a similar point today.) But I was less impressed by the way the report treated RSS.

If anything, it only goes to show how old-fashioned even the most tech-savvy newspaper-industry analysts can be. For one thing, the entire report is based on the idea that newspapers create content and that their readers passively consume it. Weirdly, it talks a lot about the reach of blogs, without ever really connecting the dots and realizing that bloggers themselves are some of the biggest consumers of newspaper content. Rather, it treats the bloggers more like leeches:

The very tools

that consumers demand for anytime/anywhere news consumption, such as RSS and mobile

newsfeeds, are dißøcult for newspapers to monetize. Consumers get the content they want

without having to go to a newspaper’s Web site — without seeing an ad served and without the

newspaper generating any direct revenue. The expensive content that newspapers produce also

lives free on the Web through postings on various blogs, which may link back to the newspaper

site but again don’t contribute to the newspaper’s bottom line…

RSS feeds generally don’t

contain ads and, depending on the format, may not require the user to click through to the Web

site to read the whole story, so while newspapers are right to oßøer consumers the convenience of

RSS subscriptions, they also may lose out in generating revenue from those consumers.

But the way I see it, RSS feeds are great for newspapers’ websites, since they drive traffic to those sites. Newspapers want to be as blog-friendly as they can, since, as the airlines like to say, "we know you have a choice of who to link to". Inbound links are like gold for newspaper websites, and publishing full RSS feeds, far from making it difficult to monetize content, are the best way of generating those precious inbound links. It’s simply not true that the only way of generating revenue from people reading RSS feeds is by serving those people ads directly. The trick is to use those people as multipliers, as free generators of fresh uniques.

It’s instructive that the people doing the survey on which the report is based clearly have very little experience with RSS or with evolving web technologies in general. Here’s a sample question:

Which types of personalized content have you viewed or read in the past 12 months

on a portal site like My Yahoo! or an RSS reader like FeedBurner?

"A portal site like My Yahoo"? I feel like I’ve just been transported backwards by a decade. "An RSS reader like FeedBurner"? FeedBurner isn’t an RSS reader! And I wouldn’t necessarily describe the contents of my RSS reader as "personalized content", either: someone reading Market Movers on the web isn’t reading personalized content, and the content is exactly the same if they read it via RSS. But that’s a niggle.

The main thing I’d try to communicate to the newspaper-industry readers of the Forrester report is that RSS and blogs are not unfortunate necessities, they’re one of your brightest hopes. Few US newspapers will ever be able to compete with the NYT in terms of attracting inbound links for the nation’s biggest stories. But when it comes to local content, the field is wide open: the NYT isn’t even the best newspaper for metro news in New York City, let alone anywhere else.

So embrace the bloggers in your area, encourage them, feed them, give them full RSS feeds sliced and diced to whatever specifications they desire, and let them bring you the new generation of readers which will replace the old print subscribers who are dying out. Don’t worry if you don’t make a lot of money serving ads to those bloggers directly: they’re much more useful as traffic drivers in any case.

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