Why RSS Versus Twitter Beats Federer Versus Roddick In Straight Sets

16-14 in the fifth set? Pah. For a real slug-fest you need to rewind seven days on the blogosphere, not 24 hours on Centre Court.

A week ago Malcolm Coles published this provocatively titled post, Newspapers: turn off your RSS feeds. Citing the latest figures on UK national papers, he pointed out that only three RSS feeds have more than 10,000 subscribers and “most newspaper … feeds have readerships in the 00s, if that.”

To wit:

I suggest newspapers switch to Twitter instead.

The advantages of Twitter, according to Coles, include the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff (“you can see which stories other people are RTing and are therefore popular”), context (“140 characters for newspapers to give some background to stories”) and conversation (“people only talk to their RSS feed when they swear at it.”)

It was a well-written piece but didn’t find universal favour. The comment thread ran long.

The following day, the post was republished on Journalism.co.uk and was subsequently retweeted 35 times, with 18 on-site comments. Oh, and it also appeared on the Online Journalism Blog generating another 44 comments.

Elsewhere, the digerati got talking.

Martin Belam – he of the excellent currybetdotnet blog – fell into conversation (on Twitter, naturally) with fellow Guardianista Charles Arthur and The Telegraph’s Ian Douglas.

Among the pro-RSS arguments was that feed generation is not a large editorial overhead, rather it is a function of the publishing platform – on The Guardian site, at least.

You want to follow every feature and every story about plastic bags? No problem, here’s the feed.

The marginal cost to the paper is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. But the reputational benefit in satisfying all those niche interests is huge.

As Belam went on to point out on his blog:

Direct consumer subscriber numbers might be low, but making content available in a machine readable format is all about being part of the platform of the web, rather than just being in browsers.

The obvious conclusion is that it’s not Twitter or RSS, it’s Twitter AND RSS. As someone who used (perversely, I admit) my Google Reader to track all mentions of twitter.com/channel4news, I was never in any doubt.

And the final set twist in the story? To his credit, Coles listened to his online critics and – in arguably a first for the blogosphere – changed his mind. At least partially.

Last Friday he published his semi-retraction, I’m sorry I suggested newspapers turn off their RSS feeds…

In it he wrote of his lessons learned. Number one:

Inflammatory headlines make good link/comment-bait, but they probably don’t do your reputation much good ;)

Related:
Five Ways News Organisations Should Use Twitter

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Jon Bernstein: I am a digital media consultant, writer and editor and this is my personal blog.

Previously, I was digital director / deputy editor at the New Statesman, the multimedia editor at Channel 4 News, launch editor of Channel 4 FactCheck, editor-in-chief at Directgov and editor-in-chief of silicon.com.

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