In defense of RSS Feeds or how to efficiently keep track of a journalism beat

They are great for digesting large amounts of information productively, without the fear of missing out on something.

2017 is already proving to be a challenging year for journalism. Many Americans dismiss reports from traditional sources, fake news and information overload are rising, and it seems the president plans to govern through tweets. We also must produce engaging stories that help communities tackle complex challenges, like the lack of affordable housing, job losses, income inequality, and pollution, while fostering transparency and representing their diversity and the country at large — something that we care deeply about in Univision Noticias. That’s why streamlining processes and improving our workflows should be a priority, in order to free some time and mental bandwidth to tackle real problems.

RSS feeds are at the top of my list of tools that we used the most this past year as digital journalists for Univision Salud and that I’ve seen others use with success.

What are RSS feeds?

RSS feeds allow you to keep track of when new content is posted on a website without requiring you to refresh the page until something new appears. “Instead of checking back every day to any particular site to see if it’s been updated, RSS feeds give users the ability to simply subscribe to the RSS feed, much like you would subscribe to a newspaper, and then read the updates from the site, delivered via RSS feeds, in what’s called a ‘feed reader,’” describes the site PostRss.

The format has been around since the 1990s, but after Google closed Google Reader (their RSS feed reader) in 2013, it became out of fashion (and has often been declared dead). Many websites stopped providing feeds, including multiple big news outlets and government offices.

The feed icon.

So, why use them then?

As programmer Alan Levine defined it, “RSS, is an old, supposedly dead technology, that still works wonders.”

RSS feeds are great if you are a voracious consumer of content and you want to digest large amounts of information efficiently, without the fear of missing out on something.

You check all the updates of the websites that you are following in one place and even can get notifications when they have more current content. They are especially useful if you want to keep track of specific topics or beats and don’t want Twitter’s or Facebook’s algorithm to “curate” the material for you.

Where do we get them?

Health-related RSS feeds.

The majority of websites and blogs still have RSS feeds. Over time, we have developed a substantial list of our favorite health-related news sources (you can read it in this excel) and their RSS feeds. To find them, we used a combination of Google searching, such as “Vox News Health Rss feeds”, and a little add-on from Chrome called “RSS Subscription Extension (by Google).” Other browsers have similar add-ons too. You can get the RSS button in Firefox by right-clicking on the address bar and turning it on.

What do we do with them?

In Univision Salud, we subscribe to RSS feeds using an integration with Slack, a messaging app used in Univision Noticias. For that purpose we created a channel within Slack that autopopulates with health news 24/7 and that everyone in our team can access in their own rhythm. That gives us a common reading experience, allowing us to make better decisions for the day based on the current agenda.

Slack has another advantage, which is that it can also be integrated with a Trello board, and we already use Trello for keeping track of ideas. We just “starred” a link and it automatically creates a card in Trello so we don’t lose track of it.

You can find more about the Slack | RSS integration here, but the steps are these:

1- Have ready the RSS feed that you want to follow within Slack.

2- If no one in your entire company is using the integration, you’ll need to install the RSS app after visiting the RSS page in the Slack App Directory.

3- Next to your team name, click Install. On the next page, click Add RSS Integration.

4- Create a private channel and name it appropriately.

5- Type “/feed subscribe” followed by the URL of the feed. Hit enter.

If you type “/feed list”, you can see your list of the RSS feeds you are subscribed to.

If you type “/feed remove”, you can remove a feed from your list.

These are the RSS feeds in a dedicated private Slack channel.

What if you don’t use Slack?

Using an RSS reader like Feedly is perfectly fine to consume feeds, although it lacks the group experience of Slack. Zapier has plenty of RSS feeds integrations that you can also use so you can get those articles as text messages, push notifications, tweets, etc. At the beginning of 2016 in Univision Salud, we manually built an internal newsletter that lived in Asana and got into our inboxes at 8:00 a.m. with a summary of the RSS feeds. We did this manually for about four months, but that ended up being too labor intensive. Later in the year, we built a simple html website for this same purpose. You can see it here, although it is not supported anymore. It was an improvement, but for us, it wasn’t as good as using Slack.

This is how the RSS Feeds looked like when we used Asana.

What do we do when a page doesn’t provide RSS feeds?

That’s when a tool like Feedity or Wrapapi (for the more technically inclined) comes in handy. These kinds of crawlers can “monitor” a web page that doesn’t offer feeds, extract data from it, and get their latest updates. That’s especially useful to see, for example, when a governmental web page has been updated. Feedity is one of the most easy to use of these tools, with the downside that you’ll need to pay a monthly fee if you want the websites to be crawled hourly. However, they do have a more limited plan that is free. If you don’t want to rely on a tool for this, there are other options available too, but that involves a little bit of coding.

Feedity’s dashboard.

Tips and tricks:

  • Group similar RSS feeds together. No matter what tool you are using to keep track of your feeds, try to not dump all of them together in one place. Split them up into related groupings. We use a private Slack channel for general health-related news, but we also have topic-specific channels that we follow, and even channels for specific media outlets.
  • Google News allows you to convert a specific search to an RSS feed. You have to browse the topic, copy the RSS feed link that they give you, and take it to your reader of preference. For example, we have a channel for five laws trying to restrict women’s reproductive rights right now in Congress, and we are following all of them in one channel, thanks to a saved Google Search.
Google’s RSS feeds alerts.

Steps for following a topic with Google News:

1- Go to news.google.com.

2- Search a topic.

3- At the bottom of the page, click Get Alert.

4- Click on Show Option.

5- Click on your email address and select RSS Feeds.

6- Click on Create Alert.

7- Copy the RSS feed URL.

8- Paste the URL to your feed reader.

  • Zapier and IFTTT also have tools to merge several feeds into one or to convert tweets into RSS feeds, something useful if you want to keep track of the current administration. Propublica is doing a great job using IFTTT and sharing their channel with their audience to help them keep track of new bills or when the House or Senate schedules a bill for consideration.

What things are RSS feeds not good for?

RSS feeds are not good to see what’s resonating with readers or to monitor what’s going viral in our beat. We genuinely care deeply about finding better ways of listening to the communities that we serve and ensuring that they feel heard, and for that, there are better tools that we’ve started to use, thanks to the great folks at Univision Beta, like Facebook Signal, Crowdtangle, and Spike.