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Is RSS dead? Newspaper subscriber numbers now and 18 months ago compared

January 4, 2011 12 Comments

There have been a couple of articles recently (see below) proclaiming the slow death of RSS as a way for users to subscribe to websites. So how do the number of subscribers to newspaper RSS feeds compare?

Back 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 back then on the number of people using Google Reader to subscribe to the three most popular RSS feeds for each UK newspaper.

So here's a table that compares the number of subscribers in Google Reader to each paper's most popular RSS feed 18 months ago and today - the overall fall is 68%.

Newspaper June 2009 subscribers January 2011 subscribers
Guardian 144,724 37,645
FT 96,819 33,173
Times 17,603 462
Telegraph 8,299 6,961
Independent 7,669 4,391
Sun 5,348 1,811
Mail 1,424 5,016
Mirror 716 1,367
Express 289 438

The papers with large numbers of subscribers have seen significant drop offs. A couple have seen an increase (but from a very low base).

Some caveats:

  • The search function in Google Reader can be a bit flaky sometimes, but I think I've found the top feeds in each case (although the feed with the most subscribers isn't always the same now as it was then).
  • The number of people using Google Reader will have changed in the intervening 18 months - but I'm not aware of any figures which show that its market share has drastically fallen.
  • The Times's numbers have obviously been affected by it going behind a paywall.

If you want to explore the data from June 2009, feel free. If you have any time, maybe you could work out the top three feeds now and compare them?

The debate was started by this post on whether RSS is dying (with a lively debate on Hacker News). TechCrunch reached the same conclusion separately. The truth is probably closest to this thoughtful follow up which distinguishes RSS as a mainstream browser-based user-facing service from a behind-the-scenes format. < Update I think that. I'm not saying RSS is dead. Don't flame me!

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12 Comments »

  • Sullivan McIntyre says:

    Interesting figures.

    There was a relevant post on the Google Reader blog in September (http://googlereader.blogspot.com/2010/09/welcome-and-look-back.html) showing that the number of Reader users has increased significantly between June '09 and Jan '10. This makes the newspapers' fall in subscribers look even worse.

  • This qualifies something I've been 'feeling' for quite some time. When RSS came out I thought everyone would fall over themselves to get hooked up to a reader and start using this wonderful new tech. They didn't. To the extent that I'm seriously considering removing the RSS button from my blog and replacing it with email subscription instead. People just prefer email and, especially now clients such as Outlook can integrate RSS alongside email, they're going to stick with what they know.

    I don't even really use RSS any more, for pure research. I cannot remember when I last looked at my Google Reader. I take my cues from what I find in Twitter and Facebook. I still find RSS incredibly useful for building dashboards, but I think apps, APIs and Facebook have all become richer, faster and - let's be frank - benefit the producers more in terms of revenue and marketing intelligence.

  • Sullivan: thanks, useful link.

    Brendan: One of the problems with RSS is sorting through the updates. Like many people, I periodically mark everything as read because I can't distinguish, and don't have time to work out, the really important stuff from the rest.

    I quite like that paper.li thing that uses Twitter to show stories that have been passed around on Twitter - but lays them out like a newspaper site's homepage to try and give different things different weights. If someone could build an RSS reader that did something similar, that would be cool ...

    • Jon Bounds says:

      Re the Paper.li thing — Flipboard or Reeder for the iPad do just that, and Reeder has a desktop version in the offing.

    • Paper.li is good but I'm finding people are only interested in it when they're in it, if you see what I mean! It's being extended to Facebook and Twitter searches too, so let's see what happens there.

      My understanding of the 'home' page on Google Reader was that it attempted to lay things out like a newspaper? Alternatively you could go for something like Netvibes which gives you that sort of layout control.

      But isn't this what apps do now? Instead of the 'free' RSS with a reader, publishers are pushing their apps to consumers who then don't need to worry about volume because it's been pre-edited, and they don't have to learn a new technique like subscribing to or reading RSS. So apps are less integrated but do remove some of these barriers. It'll be interesting to see how this pans out in 2011.

  • Jon Bounds says:

    I'm not sure the data is accurate enough to be considered representative of a trend…

    that said there is a distinct gap between the RSS "browsers" and the RSS "subscribers —  if you're just looking for a way to get notification of new stuff then notifications in a space you spend more time in (Twitter, FB, collected and then pinged to you) makes sense. Note that all that sort of stuff is reliant on RSS further up the chain.

    'Direct' RSS subbing may be on the wain, but reading things pumped by it (add in the FB or Twitter streams that are little more that RSS feeds piped to platform) probably hasn't.

    Google Reader is hub for me of tons of search feeds that I may well be the only subscriber to.

    (I mused some time ago on this http://www.jonbounds.co.uk/blog/901/just-good-enough-and-why-rss-readers-might-be-skip-tech/ )

  • Jeremy Head says:

    Thought provoking stuff. I recently revamped my RSS reader after leaving it unloved for months because I was enjoying the excitment of links shared on twitter. But I got to thinking... how can I limit myself to what a bunch of other people see as 'important'?
    I think if you have a specific sector/topic interest you are potentially really missing out on stuff by just relying on twitter.
    It would make an interesting piece of research - does following the right people on twitter offer me as much (or more) as using my Google reader/Netvibes page does?

  • Brad Down says:

    With respect RSS feed are one of the most useful technologies on the web, unfortunately many top level publishers just never got the strength of it and continued to withhold full feeds. This has led to users just not bothering or just not getting the point. If you are a headline scanner like me then they are still the best way to digest a lot of news quickly but RSS reader technology just hasn't quite given the average user enough value to persist with. RSS technology will continue to exist for years but I predict a softening of the usage and most likely the de prioritisation of integration on publisher sites.

  • [...] flux RSS des journaux sont-ils morts? (blog de Malcom [...]

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  • andy says:

    I think, not coincidentally, you have some papers that are losing subscribers globally. It would've been interesting to see RSS feeds where their personal web appeal has grown in that time period, I can't name many but The Huffington Post comes to mind.

  • [...] also some feed reader traffic, which means it still isn’t dead as a means of distribution, as some suggest it will be, but then I’m dealing with journalists, who are probably the last holdouts on [...]

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