The next front[ier] in the disruption of traditional media

An emerging Web application, Really Simple Syndication, is changing notions about the importance of being a syndicated writer. And big media may be the last to grok its implications. By Rusty Coats.

By Rusty Coats.

“I’m a syndicated writer.”

In the pre-Web days, it was an elite title. For a writer, it meant you were Big League, with your name mentioned in the same breath as George Will, Dave Barry and Dear Abby.

Syndication was a form of validation. You’d arrived. You weren’t just some local scribbler; you were a syndicated writer, represented by Big Media Companies eager to put your musings in every publication in the land. And complete strangers at other newspapers ? not the derelicts you worked with ? were ponying up cash for the privilege of subjecting their readers to your work.

For writers, it barely gets any better than that.

But an emerging Web application is changing that. And big media may be the last to grok its implications.

Enthusiasts have been prophesying a new era of media, one founded on the principles of participatory journalism ? otherwise known as Web logging or blogging. Citizens and witnesses commit journalism online in the form of personal observation and personal interest, publish to a website and invite members of their community to comment on their stories. Dale Peskin wrote eloquently about it an earlier NewsFuture essay here.

But putting publishing tools in the hands of the people is one thing. Delivering it to their doorstep ? or desktop ? is the next frontier.

That’s where RSS comes in.

RSS, an acronym for Really Simple Syndication is a Web content syndication format. It’s a form of XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which means that each piece of data ? headline, byline and story ? is coded separately so that a program or Web page will know exactly what to do with it.

By including a simple piece of code in a Web page, sites can offer headlines from national news sites such as and, magazines such as and journal headlines from favorite bloggers, from MacRumors to Boing Boing.

But the power of RSS goes beyond websites to applications that are designed to parse headlines from numerous sources ? a mix of media customized completely by the reader. Called “news aggregators,” these are small desktop applications that let you read headlines from dozens or hundreds of news sites. One of them, NetNewsWire, looks like this:

In a nutshell, RSS allows news sites ? and bloggers ? to syndicate their content. Each time a news site updates its headlines in an RSS format ? or a blogger posts another comment to her online journal ? that headline automatically appears on a number of sites.

Building an RSS output is no problem from most Web-publishing systems already in use by news media sites. (Most sites output to multiple templates; this is just another template.) But few commercial news sites have done so ? until recent weeks.

The Christian Science Monitor in late October announced it would make the full contents of its site available in RSS format. (Read about it here.) The move was celebrated on weblogs and Internet-syndication sites as a forward step ? another example of a mainstream media company that “gets it,” albeit somewhat later than the ‘Net’s digerati would like.

But mainstream media companies are businesses and are especially focused on profitability. RSS syndication does not show an immediate ROI, or return-on-investment. And the feeds don’t, as of today, have any supporting advertising. Their goal is to drive readership of content and traffic to your site. But increasing traffic without simultaneously increasing profits is not a popular tune to sing at mainstream media companies.

These self-syndicated writers have become part of my daily media habit. A Big Media Company hoping to get on my deck will start in 20th place and will need to beat out the new breed of syndicated writers.

Another hurdle for mainstream media companies to overcome is registration. If a news site requires registration ? as many now do and even more soon will ? the first thing a user following an RSS link to your site sees is “The Wall” ? that interrupt page demanding users register before they can read content. Sites by Tribune Media, Belo Interactive and others would face this issue. But there are solutionsBut there are solutions to this; has created specific non-registration pages for RSS followers.

So why create RSS feeds from your site if there’s no immediate ROI?

A few thoughts:

  • It’s emergent. RSS feeds and news aggregators are today what Web browsers were in 1996. It’s a new publishing platform, and it’s already the de-facto format used by the Web’s early adopters.
  • It’s effortless. Any database-publishing system that can output Web pages can output RSS feeds. No staff time beyond creating a basic template = very little expense.
  • It’s migrating. RSS feeds now find their way onto Web pages and news aggregators. Apple’s new calendar application, iCal, allows users to syndicate events ? ranging from personal get-togethers to DVD release dates and sporting events. Headlines are not far behind.
  • It’s multi-platform. News aggregators are a much better fit for low-bandwidth browsers on mobile phones, PDAs and tablets.
  • It’s the Classifieds, stupid. Most of the RSS community is focused on content. That’s great; so was the early Web. But feeding classified ads to aggregators is the next obvious step, and will prove to be hugely profitable for newspapers ? or whoever decides to do it first.
  • Fear Factor. Let’s face it: Fear is why most newspapers first went online ? afraid Microsoft, AOL or Joe Blow was going to steal market share. Not having your content available in a medium that is growing in popularity rather than waning may not have immediate ROI, but the long-term prognosis for such ignorance is death.

Most importantly, the cost of not offering your site’s content via RSS news aggregators is in becoming irrelevant. I currently subscribe to more than 20 RSS feeds on my NetNewsWire aggregator. Three come from traditional news-media companies. The rest are offered by hobbyists and niche publishers.

These feeds are no less interesting, insightful or engaging than the mainstream media feeds. These self-syndicated writers have become part of my daily media habit. A Big Media Company hoping to get on my deck will start in 20th place and will need to beat out the new breed of syndicated writers.

Best of luck.



  • New York Times:
  • Christian Science Monitor:
  • Nando Times:
  • BBC:
  • Cnet News:
  • Salon:


  • Amphetadesk (for Windows, Linux, or Mac)
  • Radio (for Windows or Mac)
  • NewzCrawler (for Windows)
  • NetNewsWire Lite (for Mac)
  • (web-based aggregator)

    Online aggregators:

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