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Online amateurs

December 9, 2010

Community newspaper bosses have become obsessed with the Internet in recent years.

“The Web!” they scream. “Post to the web! Video, slide shows, photo galleries. This is your new job.”

Behind it all, however, has been a determined reluctance to hire the number, or quality, of web-savvy producers required to achieve such a goal. You can count on one hand the beleaguered folks who post stories to the web for the two largest major B.C. paper chains. And unfortunately, they’re so swamped with plugging holes and shovelling news that they don’t have time to ensure the websites are actually as forward-thinking as the 50- and 60-year-old Luddite executives they work for think they are.

As today’s example of untapped technology, let’s consider the RSS feed of BC Local News, the hub of David Black’s digital empire. As I started this site, I hoped to add RSS feeds for all the Black Press papers so as to be able to monitor the stories being written and, hopefully, point to the good and the bad.

(RSS feeds for the uninitiated allow readers of blogs or news sites to have new content–or portions thereof–sent to a centralized hub as soon as they are published, where they can be read alongside the consumer’s other subscribed to sites.)

But when I first went to subscribe to the overarching BC Local News site, no matter what I did, I was signed up for the “Kootenay Rockies” subscription. Even after I figured out how to independently subscribe to each individual region (Hint, go to Bookmarks > Subscribe To This Page > Region of choice), the feeds were still useless. Every single article and cutline is posted, each with a title. But most (although, mysteriously, not all) don’t include so much as an introductory sentence or blurb that would give me a sense of what may be behind the sometimes mysterious headline or kicker.

Postmedia sites are better. Barely. To subscribe to the Postmedia websites there is a link, way at the bottom of the page, for “Sitemap/RSS.” At the sitemap you can subscribe to various RSS feeds. But it takes some serious navigation and I only found the feeds after significant searching.

Granted most people don’t know what an RSS feed is. But that is surely not helped when an industry that would benefit from the subscription model don’t even understand the potential of the technology. And there are readers out there if you can properly access them. The Kamloops Daily News feed only has 11 subscribers who use Google Reader to access the site. But the blog of that same paper’s sports editor, Greg Drinnan, has 109 subscribers through Google Reader. Given that Drinnan’s blog has no easy-to-find RSS button, those subscribers likely have above-average levels of computer literacy. But these are the young readers newspapers are trying, but failing, to target.

I know what you’re thinking: newspapers can’t make advertising dollars if people only read their content on, say, Google Reader. That’s true.  But RSS feeds don’t have to provide all of a site’s content. The best technique is the one in which a site provides a paragraph or two–the lede or a nut graph–that entices a reader click the “more” icon and follow through to the site. This, for example, is the Burnaby Now RSS feed. And this is the Lillooet-Bridge River News feed. Neither feed scoops the paper, and both would be useful to readers if they weren’t so hard to find and if they were educated on how to use them.

For an industry that was once based on the subscription model—and which hopes to prosper from the Internet revolution—this seems like a massive oversight from both chains. Glacier deserves kudos. There is a gigantic “follow” button, which includes RSS, at the top of most (but not all, unfortunately) pages. Each feed also relays the first paragraph, rather than the first sentence, of each story.

For me, the lack of reliable RSS feeds makes it a pain in the ass to monitor community newspapers in British Columbia. And the one thing a newspaper doesn’t want to be these days is a pay in the ass.

You can sign up for this blog’s RSS feed by moving your mouse over the RSS icon at the top of the sidebar. You can either click the icon, or choose a provider like Google to handle your feeds. I recommend using Google Reader to monitor multiple feeds, but you can always save the feed as a like your run of the mill bookmark.

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Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment (the button’s up top by the headline) and I’ll duly update the post.

Seen something else I should know about? Want to write a post? Have better photos than the Creative Commons Flickr pool ones I use? E-mail bclocalreporter(at)gmail.com.

Help complete a census of B.C. community newspapers by filling in the blanks for your newspaper in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. 

Photo courtesy of Robert Scoble via Flickr
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