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Newspapers: turn off your RSS feeds

June 30, 2009 23 Comments

The latest subscriber figures (see table below) show that, apart from a couple of exceptions, it's time for newspapers to turn off their RSS feeds - and hand over the server space, technical support and webpage real estate to an alternative, such as their Twitter accounts.

Melanie Phillips: Only 11 Rss subs thank god

Melanie Phillips: Only 11 Rss subs thank god

The table below shows that only 3 of the 9 national newspapers have an RSS feed with more than 10,000 subscribers in Google Reader.

And most newspaper RSS feeds have readerships in the 00s, if that.

Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips has just 11 subscribers to her RSS feed (maybe there's hope for the UK population yet ...).

Despite having virtually no users, the Mail churns out 160 RSS feeds and the Mirror 280. All so a couple of thousand people can look at them in total.

The other papers are just as bad. And while the Guardian has a couple of RSS readers with decent numbers (partly because Google recommends it in its news bundle), it has more feeds than there are people in the UK ...

Top 3 RSS feeds at each newspaper

They didn't all have three that showed up (full table here) ...

Switch to Twitter instead

I suggest newspapers switch to Twitter instead. Twitter's advantages over RSS include:

  • Wheat vs chaff As a reader, you can see which stories other people are RTing and are therefore popular.
  • Context There's space in 140 characters for newspapers to give some background to stories as well as the headline (well, there is for those that don't just stick the first few words of the standfirst after the headline).
  • Promotion Followers can RT newspaper stories, promoting the paper - they can't do this with elements of an RSS feed.
  • Tracking Stories' development can be tracked on Twitter - you can't usually tell what's changed in an RSS feed.
  • Conversation You can take part in a conversation on Twitter. People only talk to their RSS feed when they swear at it. The journalists behind the story can tweet, too.

Newspapers agree with me ...

As I say, despite poor subscriptions for many feeds, papers pump out RSS feeds as if there's no tomorrow - the second column in the table shows how many feeds (rounded) that each paper has.

But despite this, it's clear some papers agree with me - and have already given up on RSS feeds and no longer actively promote them.

No visibility

The Mail, despite its 160-odd feeds, only mentions them in its footer.

The same is true of the Sun.

On the page but hardly visible

The FT's RSS link does at least have a logo - but its buried at the bottom of the right hand column on each page.

The Telegraph shows relevant RSS feeds on pages - but they're buried in a different way: above a banner ad that no one will ever look at.

Even the Guardian, which lets you mash up your own RSS feeds (hence the 000,000s in the table), hides details of its feeds under an unusual term 'webfeed' in the far right of its header.

Times promotes twitter

Times promotes twitter

The Times still has an RSS link in its main header menu on its news page. On other pages its's at the bottom. And it mentions Twitter on its pages much more than RSS.

Visible - but not doing them any good

The Independent is alone in listing RSS feeds on its main category pages - although that doesn't seem to get it many subscribers.

The Mirror has an RSS link next to its search box, although it took me ages to find it. Does this count as visible - it's not exactly intuitive ...

Express theatre RSS feed: gibberish

Express theatre RSS feed: gibberish

And the Express has a link and a logo prominently in its header. But as the express doesn't update its website often (or at all on sunday), I guess that's why no one subscribes. And some of its RSS feeds appear to be garbage - check out this theatre one ...

Caveats about the data

After you've started writing something about newspapers, you'll eventually discover that Martin Belam has already written about it. Having just noticed his Top 75 British newspaper RSS feeds (written before the recent explosion in Twitter use) as I was researching Google Reader's market share, I figured I'd just repeat his caveats about his own data as they apply to mine too:

  • Subscribers don't necessarily ever read anything.
  • Numbers quoted by Google vary wildly.
  • Newspapers have problem with the same feed on different URLs. To quote Martin: "If the papers themselves can't work out how to set one canonical URL for their content, why should I?"
  • Google Reader search is not great. There may be mising feeds.

You might also like
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  5. UK newspaper twitter followers up 17% from August to September

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  • Jeezus, really so few subscribers? How are people arriving at these sites mainly? Would twitter really work? Wouldn't most of the updates just wash past when you were not looking? I would have totally missed that baboon story on twitter. At least rss stacks them up for you.

  • minifig says:

    I think the other thing to add to your caveats is that Google Reader is not the be-all and end-all in the RSS market. In fact, RSS can be, and is, used in so many different ways that it's very difficult to measure how useful it is.

    'Turning off' the RSS feeds also seems a little over-simplistic. Surely for most newspapers, it's just built into the software? There isn't someone who has to do anything to ensure the RSS feed gets served. Clearly it requires a little bit of work from the server and the odd bit of maintenance, but it's not like each newspaper has a couple of people dealing with it who they could sack if they stopped creating them.

    And Twitter seems to be pretty far from being the answer. Many newspapers and columnists seem to use their own RSS feeds to fill their Twitter streams anyway using tools like Twitterfeed. Nothing wrong with that, but it certainly doesn't make 'turning off' the RSS a solution to everything.

    I think the key point you make here is that RSS is still a pretty niche market, which is in my view a shame. Clearly my views are warped somewhat by the fact that I find RSS extremely useful. It's the key way I interact with the internet in fact. It's a shame that more people who would find RSS extremely useful don't use it more often, it's true, but using a Twitter account is absolutely no replacement for it. Perhaps some better explanations of RSS from the newspapers, and Google pushing its Reader more heavily might help?

    Incidentally, Google Reader reports to me that you have 37 subscribers, whereas in Twitter you have 354 followers. Are you going turn off your RSS?

    • You're right, of course - it was a bit oversimplistic! But still ... pumping out these 000s of feeds that no one is looking at, taking up space on the screen, remembering to include them when you do a redesign, arguing about whether to include them when you do a redesign ...

      All so a handfull of people can stare at a massive list of headings in a feed reader and occasionally 'mark all as read' because they haven't got time to sift through them all.

      Twitter lets the community judge what's good. It lets newspapers add context to the story (when they don't just pump out their RSS feed in tweet form) etc. It's not perfect, no.

      But RSS is a long way from being any good, and the numbers show it. Why not give up and do something else?

      • minifig says:

        I take the point in general terms, but is it really RSS itself that's broken? If you look at its use purely to serve pages to Google Reader, there are a lot of feeds that aren't getting much use, but it's used in a fair few other places. All browsers come with RSS feedreaders now, and the less RSS-addicted friends I have often use this to keep track of particular favourites. RSS underpins the entire podcast system. It's used for plasma screens in offices and we use it at work to feed BBC news onto our intranet. None of these uses would get counted in your example, but they're still good, valuable, uses of RSS.

        In fact, it's the simplicity (hence the name!) of RSS that makes it so conveniently useful and potentially limitless. I take the point that RSS shouldn't take precedence over everything when one is refreshing web designs, since it's still a pretty niche product (although hard-to-find RSS feeds drive me insane!) but I just don't accept that Twitter is a solution to the problem. It's one example of a good way of getting content to users, but that's all.

        And your example of the way Twitter can sort of push the best material out has its limits. Retweeting can be majorly annoying and the accepted way of doing loses another 5-10 characters from the 140 limit, when the link has already lost a fair chunk. RSS on the other hand, can feed an entire article to a feedreader. That could be Google Reader, but it could also be your iPhone, or perhaps at some point in the UK, your Kindle. Twitter just doesn't offer the same level of flexibility.

        • "All browsers come with RSS feedreaders now": I nearly added a bit asking everyone not to say this! They do. Ask the average person to explain that sentence and they'd look at you blankly.

          I think we can agree that RSS in general serves a purpose. For a few people, newspaper RSS feeds are useful.

          But it's not a good way for most people to keep up with newspaper stories. I'm not turning my feed off because I only have one that I publicise, and I publish only every couple of days (unless I see a bad site relaunch...).

          But what is the point of the Mail, say, having 160 feeds (and you've seen the Express theatre feed above...)? The news ones must have dozens of stories a day, and there's no way anyone can keep on top of that volume of publication via RSS.

          And yes, they get pumped out automatically by most CMSes. But you still have to make sure the page that lists them all is set up etc etc etc.

          And when you have a redesign, you have to talk about them. And they go wrong and people email your customer service dept. And they're just not that useful.

          So, I'm not calling for the scrapping of RSS. I'm calling for the newspapers to stop churning out 000s of feeds that people don't look at.

          • Yes, less useful for bulk news, probably better for columnists who post less regularly that you don't want to miss. I'm still shocked at the small number of subscribers though. RSS has never really been as simple to set up as its name suggests either.

          • minifig says:

            Fair points all!

          • Google Reader has only part of the market as well. I thought I'd pointed that out in my list of caveats at the end, but I must have accidentally deleted it. Anyway, twice 20 is still only 20 subscribers for Melanie (Her, her mum, her under another account ..)

  • IanVisits says:

    If you switched off your RSS feed, I would simply stop reading your publication.

    It is that simple.

    You might want to push me towards using your Twitter feed, but I don't want my twitter account cluttered up with "work".

    RSS is orders of magnitude more flexible than Twitter (at the moment) and with a lot of RSS feeds, I can read the entire article/post without having to visit the website.

    It worries me that I am hearing more people seeming to suggest that they are running their webservers so close to the limit, that they should consider freeing up the tiny bit of processing power that generating RSS feeds needs.

    A website that close to the server capacity limit is badly managed.

  • Sebastian says:

    I don't see the problem with the feeds, other than a poorly design of the website, which makes me wanna leave...

    If you look closely, you can get ALL content from Express from about 5 different RSS-feeds. And for those who want specifik feeds from specific areas, well they can have that.

    The biggest problem with RSS is the stupid technical name making it hard for people to understand. Too bad it's not hyped as Twitter now is, since RSS fknn rule!

  • Sebastian says:

    By the way, i think you are using your "Share or link this article" wrong with the Twitter logo/link. The point is to share your article on my own Twitter, not follow your Twitter... mixing apples and bananas...

  • You expect different things from rss and twitter anyway. you expect the stack of what you like to read from rss, but the twitter should be extra or icing on the cake, or tangential to the feeds. To set up twitter to do the same thing would take more efffort than rss.

    Does the express have a klingon recipe feed - in klingon? If so I'm there.

  • Matt Wardman says:

    And just think how many wonderfully embarrassing articles have been preserved on Google reader after the lawyers thought they had been deleted :-)

  • Matt Wardman says:

    >The follow me logo is to follow me. You can share this via twitter using the share this logo. It's not an ideal setup - do you know a better out of the box combo of those sites?

    I think a generic "follow me" icon is better at the top of the page with ... er ... your RSS icon.

    I've also found real value in a comments feed when posts go high volume comment-wise.

    Perhaps "Tweet This" seems to work well as a "share by Twitter" suggestion. "Share this" sounds like Alcoholics Anonymous. At present as a viral mechanism Twitter is so far ahead (have you tested your clickthrough rate?) that I'd honestly be willing to drop all the others.

    Recently, though, I've have been getting a reasonable no of comments via Facebook and Friendfeed.

    I'm reasonably happy with my overall setup except for the absence of a "what is RSS" explanation. There are nice approaches on and .

    • Yes, I get so much traffic via twitter I've almost given up SEOing (EG can't be arsed to do keyword research before choosing titles).

      Although on my post on Delia Smith's relaunch I got more traffic from a norwich city bulletin board than even twitter!

      I tried shoving twitter etc buttons up there. I couldn't find one to fit, and I kept breaking the layout and I haven't got easy access to IE to test it on. So I gave up.

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  • [...] in June 2009, I somewhat rashly suggested that newspapers should turn off their RSS feeds as no one was using them (I then recanted slightly). Fortunately this means I have the data for [...]

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