The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
Beyond RSS Aggregators
February 2004

by Terry L. Heaton

I grew up in the 1950s, when science fiction was just beginning to play with robots, the most famous of which was Gort from the 1951 classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still. Robots went bad a lot in those days, especially the ones in Superman, but the idea that machines would one day serve our needs was something we dreamed about. Who wouldn't want one like Rosie from The Jetsons? I think we fantasize about these things for many reasons, but a lot of it comes from the belief that technology can and should be harnessed to serve mankind.

We've certainly seen a proliferation of gadgets and gizmos in recent years that accomplish the task quite well, and nowhere is this truer than in the way we communicate. Even such a marvelous invention as the telephone seems clunky by today's standards, and who wants to retrieve a wet newspaper from the lawn, when the same thing is available — in living color — on the World Wide Web.

But the newest thing to aid in being well-informed is a dandy little item known as a news aggregator. You'll hear a lot about these in the years to come, and I predict this will be the primary method of news delivery worldwide within the next 5 years.

A news aggregator is essentially a robot that communicates with the Internet and finds the news you ask it to find. Current aggregators provide text-only, but I think that will ultimately change to include multimedia content.

News aggregators take advantage of a technology that's been around since 1997 called RSS. RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or Real (or Really) Simple Syndication, depending on whom you ask. It's used to syndicate news content or any kind of text subject matter that is regularly updated. It speaks in the Internet dialect of Extensible Markup Language (XML), and here's how it works. Let's say I'm the New York Times, and I want to make my editorial content available to as many people as possible, so I create an XML version of each story's first 30 words and publish it on my Website (software does this automatically). Then, let's say that you are interested in news from the New York Times, so you obtain a simple — and in many cases, free — piece of software called a news aggregator. You give it the address of my XML file and, voila! Every time I load a new story, your news aggregator alerts you that it's there. You are automatically informed every time a new story posts on my Website. You can read — on your desktop — the first 30 words or so and decide if you want to click on a link to read more.

You don't have to scan ALL of the news from my site. Yahoo, for example, has a host of RSS feeds available, through which you can be very specific about the types of news stories sent to your news aggregator. This will no doubt be further refined as the technology develops.

As a regular consumer of news, I can tell you that there's nothing quite like my simple little news aggregator. The news comes to me instead of me going to it. It's very robotesque and enormously time saving for me, to say nothing of what it's done in terms of broadening the scope of my information reach. I keep track of many news outlets and blogs this way. It's simply a marvelous technology for news.

This concept is built on what FCC Chairman Michael Powell calls the "most powerful paradigm shift" in communications history — the fact that applications aren't woven into delivery infrastructures anymore. What he's saying is that anybody can be a phone company now with a simple application, just as anybody can be their own newspaper or TV station with a high speed Internet connection. One doesn't need to own the delivery system in order to be a player, and Powell views that as a major threat to the status quo. He told the San Jose Mercury editorial board, "Now to be a phone company, you don't have to weave tightly the voice service into the infrastructure. You can ride it on top of the infrastructure. So if you're a Vonage, you own no infrastructure. You own no trucks. You roll to no one's house. They turn voice into an application and shoot it across one of these platforms. And, suddenly, you're in business.

"And that's why if you're the music industry, you're scared. And if you're the television studio, movie industry, you're scared. And if you're an incumbent infrastructure carrier, you'd better be scared. Because this application separation is the most important paradigm shift in the history of communications, and will change things forever."

Riding atop the infrastructure, the aggregator concept will be moving forward on two fronts, I believe, because of the economics involved and consumer demand.

The first front is video, or multimedia in the vernacular of the Web. AOL's decision late last year to purchase, the Internet's first multimedia search engine company, was made, in part, to keep Google from gaining an advantage in this developing market. SingingFish has indexed more than nine million audio and video streams and powers the multimedia search engines on several big Websites. Content categories include movies, news, sports, music, radio, TV, and "other," which often refers to adult content. AOL recognizes the demand and has responded accordingly.

Video search is going to be huge in the years to come, as news video on demand (NVOD) services develop.

While we're on the subject, Google already functions as a form of an aggregator. Google news gathers stories from various sites it has tagged and gathers them together for users to pick and choose from a newspaper-like page. It doesn't really stretch the imagination to see the value of providing this kind of service for multimedia news. Google News offers users the ability to receive emails on stories or subjects of interest to them, thereby providing a watchdog service that is continually scanning the Web and, in a sense, duplicating the functionality of a separate news aggregator. It's a terrific service, but I'd prefer to do this myself rather than hand it over to a profit-motivated third party.

Google's wants advertising impressions and aggressively pursues them by bypassing entry pages from a variety of Websites in order to serve the search needs of Google users. This has not gone unnoticed by the businesses they're searching. They like the traffic Google gives them but are scratching their heads over whether it might not be an overall liability. By employing a site's own technology, for example, Google is able to provide a simple text search for nearly anything, and that includes content deep inside a company's Website. Late last year, Google launched a service wherein users can track FedEx or UPS shipments simply by entering the tracking number and "FedEx" or "UPS" in the search bar. Up pops the page from the FedEx or UPS site with your information! This is great for the consumer but not necessarily so for FedEx or UPS. Google didn't partner with either FedEx or UPS to provide this service. They didn't need to, and there's really nothing to stop them from spreading such services. That could be a problem for news organizations that would prefer to have users visit several pages on their Websites.

While it's true that a client side news aggregator does the same thing, the choice on what goes out to the aggregator rests completely with the company providing the content, not a third party search firm. I think this will be increasingly important in a VNOD world, because it'll determine how many and whose commercials I have to watch.

The biggest advantage news aggregators have is that the user can determine what sites are searched and have that delivered, unfiltered, right to their desktop. That includes keeping up with certain writers, in addition to various subjects and news sources. Search engines like Google have a lot of muscle, but the Postmodern Internet tends to reject any kind of Modernist manipulation in favor of freedom of choice for the user. This is why my money is with the new aggregators of the future.

The second front on which I think we'll see this develop is in the advertising of goods and services. While Madison Avenue is all a-twitter over who can be the sneakiest in creating clever marketing in a changing culture, the industry seems to have lost sight of the reality that consumers really want and need advertising. Let's face it; we all make consumer decisions based on advertising, whether it's the big sale at the mall or the rebate from Chevrolet. We need to know these things, so advertising will always be with us.

But like everything else Postmodern, people want some say in what's delivered to their advertising plate. For example, there are certain TV ads that automatically force a channel change with me. It's not that I'm offended by ALL commercials — some are downright entertaining — but I'm mightily turned off by some. I believe the idea that anybody with the right amount of cash can interrupt my life to sell me something is dead, or at least dying. I can put up a "No Trespassing" sign to deter door-to-door salesmen. The phone company offers me technology to screen telemarketers. Junk mail goes automatically in the dumpster, and one day somebody will come up with a workable solution to spam. Why? Because we want a little privacy, thank you very much, and we don't think we should have to put up with constant sales pitches. Why is it any different with other communications' media, including television?

Some day, a smart entrepreneur is going to develop a multimedia ad Website built on RSS that allows people to decide whether they want to view a new advertisement for a product or service that interests them. Moreover, I think it's likely that one day most, if not all, Websites will serve ads based on user preferences and not just demographics or psychographics.

If you run a news Website and don't offer your content to users via RSS, you need to make that priority one for 2004. You want your XML address in your users' aggregators and not your competitors.

If you're a news consumer and don't have a news aggregator on your desktop, you're missing a powerful New Media robot that'll serve your information needs better than you can imagine.

© Terry L. Heaton