Why is RSS adoption so abysmal amongst UK newspapers online? 26 February, 2007 — Stuart Brown
Old media, meet new
The transition from old media to new media is inescapable, and for most the daily dose of news via the internet is now perhaps more common than the newspaper on the doorstep in the morning. Why then, are the RSS subscriber numbers so weak?
News is the ideal media for delivery via RSS - it's time critical, produced at a maintainable rate, and transfers well to the medium. What is perhaps missing is the conversational aspect of more widely-subscribed format, the blog - but despite this, RSS adoption for news should mirror the popularity of physical newspaper submissions.
Analysis & methodology
What is clear, however, is that even the most popular daily newspaper in Britain has quite frankly shockingly poor subscribership. Using publicly-available subscriber statistics from Bloglines, we can garner a fairly accurate idea of how each UK newspaper fares in RSS readership. The figures shown here are straight from Bloglines, and are most likely representative of 15-20% of RSS usage.
NB: Graph shown on logarithmic scale on y-axis; For comparison purposes, 'Modern Life' is marked in green.
At the far top end of the chart is The Guardian's online edition, Guardian Unlimited. With nearly 20,000 subscribers (giving us an estimated 125,000 total usage), The Guardian is the clear winner in terms of online newspaper editions - with a staggering 50 times the subscribership of nearest print rival, The Telegraph.
So why does The Guardian have such a lead? There are, I suspect, quite a number of reasons, based on both the presentation and style of content - and those consuming it.
A quick trudge through the Internet Archive reveals the Guardian Unlimited site, circa December 2000 - and it's remarkably similar to the site you see today. Although this may be a reflection on the need to refresh today, back then their adoption of new-fangled news feeds - see the link on the right proclaiming 'free content for your site' - has given the Guardian a definitive advantage.
Compare and contrast, then, with the Telegraph at around the same time. Note the lack of any form of news feeds, and the distinctly dated design of the site. They now sport a fresher look, and no doubt are catching up, but the early adoption by The Guardian will have cemented their position.
Of course, simply having RSS feeds isn't enough to guarantee that anyone will use them - it's down to the individual to subscribe. RSS adoption is most likely highest amongst younger, more internet-literate folk - and again, this is where The Guardian's strengths lie, sporting a younger, more tech-savvy readership. The more traditionally conservative Telegraph will be less likely to attract such a reader.
It's all in the content
One of the problems with news content (as opposed to blogs) is the lack of a conversational style of writing - in traditional media news articles are very much separate. However, what the Guardian has managed to do is engender a conversational-style approach to the Guardian Unlimited site, rather than the atomised, completely separate and somewhat stuffy approach favoured by other publications.
One area in which a lot of sites do fail, however, is the content available in the feed. Even The Guardian provides just the headline alone, with nary a trace of content contained within. It's like receiving a newspaper on your doorstep with everything but the headlines clipped out, with a note that says 'come to the newsagents to read this article'. Although I'd appreciate the option of partial feeds, full feeds are a definite boon when it comes to subscribing to an RSS feed.>
And the rest?
The BBC News website does rather well for RSS feeds, largely thanks to some international repute and being a common destination for news on the web - indeed, the BBC site is 29th overall according to Alexa - and 6th for UK-specific traffic, but the 5,259 (circa 35,000 total) subscriptions pale into insignificance when compared to some of the top blogs.
There's no doubt that RSS adoption is on the increase - it's rapidly becoming more accepted in the mass-media, and no self-respecting blog is to be found without a feed - but it's fatally apparent that UK mass media simply doesn't fare well in this regard.
While the lack of a tech-savvy populace may be a limiting factor, a lot of online newspapers simply don't pay enough attention to the loyal readership they could be engendering via RSS - instead relying on those loyal to the physical paper to type in the web address. Perhaps in the longer term online publications will not see the digital subscription as a threat to paper, but as a complement?