RSS: The Problem Isn't the Conveyance But What is Conveyed

ClickZ yesterday paraphrases me as saying the argument for growing audience through RSS is dubious. It’s an accurate paraphrase and the ClickZ article does report what I think.

I want to fortify it. There is nothing wrong with RSS. Look, I publish a RSS feed myself. I’ve been a speaker at many conferences about how to monetize RSS feeds. I’m proud to say that in early 2000, Editor & Publisher magazine quoted me saying that RDF (as RSS was then known) would revolutionize content syndication.

However, just as there is nothing wrong with RSS, there is nothing wrong with Betamax, steamships, postal mail, television, horse carts, or geek code (for those who don’t remember that). The problem isn’t the conveyance but what is conveyed and for what purpose.

When readership of the contents of newspapers and magazines has been steadily declining for 40 years, the problem is the contents not the conveyance. We already know that simply shoveling the contents of periodicals online won’t reverse that decline. The problem hasn’t been that the conveyance was newsprint but the contents.

Likewise, simply shoveling that contents into RSS won’t reverse that decline. If the more compelling (i.e., multimedia) HTML format didn’t reverse the decline, then a plain-text format like RSS won’t either. The solution isn’t to find new ways to distribute the declining content. The solution is to solve the problem of that declining content itself.

And it might also come as a surprise to some freelance bloggers who read the following: If content producers who are employed in teams can’t make a living producing content as a team, then dire economics straits eventually force them to stop producing it. Ask anyone who once worked for the more than 300 daily newspapers that have ceased publication during the past 40 years, the hundreds of magazines that have done so, or companies like United Press International (the real UPI of old, not the current company that purchased that legendary brandname).

As the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported earlier this year, “If people increasingly substitute the Web for their old media before a robust economic model for the Web evolves, the economic effect could be devastating for journalism. Companies might begin to cut back significantly on their newsgathering abilities, as audiences abandon profitable old platforms in favor of less profitable new ones. The Net in this case might weaken, not strengthen, the economic vitality of news organizations and the quality of American journalism.”

Substitute ‘RSS’ for ‘Web’ in that quote. Some bloggers might think that scenario will doom only corporate media, which ‘We Media’ will rise to replace it. But, sorry kiddies, the fact is that for every ‘RatherGate’ story in which bloggers force a correction in a corporate media story, there are literally tens of thousands of stories filed daily by professional journalists working as teams in newspapers or news magazines. When RSS has no business model, their livlihoods are threatened the way that the PEJ mentioned above.

The problem isn’t a question of whether or not to use RSS (or any other way of disseminating content). Yet, using it without figuring out a business model for it is self-destructiive (the same with using it in the mere hope that a business model will someday appear).

Too much effort is being expended in implementing RSS without any business model. The solution will ultimately be to first fix the problem with the content, to make content that people are willing to pay for online, then use RSS as one of many ways to distribute it. [That ultimate solution lays in using XML and individualization. More about that later.]

One thought on “RSS: The Problem Isn't the Conveyance But What is Conveyed

  1. Maybe I’m missing something but I thought the business model for RSS feeds was to monitize the traffic generated to the full stories with advertising. Most feeds I’ve seen are headlines and maybe a category and/or teaser with a URL to the full story.

    As far as the technical implementation goes, it should be fairly simple if the content is in a DBMS and headlines, category, teasers and URL are fielded. Maybe people are extending too much effort trying to get other websites to take the feed.

    Not that we have bothered to implement RSS for the 2,000+ stories we generate on our weely newspaper websites. Our perception is that those websites that take the feeds and have traffic, like yahoo, won’t be interested in the smaller markets we serve. We also believe that there are relatively few end users that use RSS readers.

    RSS remains toward the bottom of the list of our priorities.

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