RSS: How to pull the news that matters

By Nick Holmes on August 21, 2006
Comments Off on RSS: How to pull the news that matters
Filed under Articles, Feeds

First published May 2004 in the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers.

If you use the web seriously to keep up to date on a particular topic, you probably visit the news pages of dozens of sites and subscribe to a number of email newsletters – and you never have the time to review all of them regularly or in sufficient detail.

But there is a way to keep track of developments, with a friendly desktop tool that enables you to scan only the news that you want to see, without opening a single web page or email: the RSS reader. With one installed on your PC you can scroll through headlines and summaries of news stories, organized as you choose, with views of what’s new today or topic by topic. When you see a story you want to read, you click on it and are taken directly to its web location. Most importantly, an RSS reader checks for new items periodically and alerts you when updates are found, so it’s always fresh and there’s no need for you constantly to check sites for changes.

The RSS reader is undoubtedly the killer application of the moment.

What is RSS?

RSS is a data syndication format originally developed by Netscape which has now spun off into several different versions under different control (hence the use of various expanded forms: Remote Site Syndication, Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary, depending on whom you ask). In essence RSS is a standard format that enables publishers to produce headline feeds and users periodically to check those feeds for updates using an RSS reader.

Although there is heated debate in the technical community as to the merits of each of the various competing versions of RSS, this need be of no concern to the user, since all good RSS readers will handle all the various flavours. A new format called Atom has more recently been developed, and the popular RSS readers are now being modified to read this too.

Where to find RSS feeds

RSS feeds are increasingly being produced by major news providers and by other specialist news sites. Below are listed selected sites producing feeds of direct relevance to UK lawyers. I’d suggest you first visit some of these sites to see what’s on offer and then browse your favourite news sites to see if they produce feeds.

But first, how do you recognize an RSS feed? On the news site, look for links that say RSS, XML or Atom feed; more commonly they are orange buttons like this:

[XML] or [RSS FEED]

These links point to the feeds. Click on them and you’ll get a web browser view of the feed: either a formatted page or raw XML source. Don’t panic! Instructions on how to use the feed are under “Getting started” below.

Weblog feeds

The publishing of online journals or weblogs (or simply blogs) has increased rapidly in popularity. Many weblogs also offer feeds; indeed the increasing provision of feeds generally can largely be attributed to the ubiquity of weblogs. So it’s worth a quick detour here to explain what blogs are all about.

A blog is a reverse chronological list of items or “posts”, with latest posts on the main blogsite page and older posts maintained on archive pages. There are several free web services that provide the tools to produce blogs just by pushing buttons. For the publisher (or blogger) weblogs are attractive as no technical skills are required to publish them. But there are enough amateur publishers out there on the web already and you may be forgiven for thinking that blogging is just adding to the mayhem. However, blogs have a standard structure which both curbs the excesses of amateur publishers and provides a familiar environment for the reader.

Blogs tend to encourage personal diaries and the better ones make for compulsive reading. But their application is very much wider. Importantly, the diary format is ideal for current awareness publishing: hence law blogs (also, unfortunately, known as blawgs). Legal blogging has taken off in the USA (too many lawyers?), but in the UK only a handful have so far come to light, including those producing feeds that are mentioned below.

A selection of feeds for the lawyer

To give you a flavour of what’s on offer, here is a selection of sites producing feeds that should be of interest to the UK lawyer.

National news

The Telegraph produces feeds for each of its main sections. Go to the home page and click the XML link at the foot of the home page to view the list of feeds.

The Scotsman produces a huge number of feeds. Go to the feeds page for the list of feeds. There are many of specific interest to lawyers, including Legal Issues and Privacy Laws.

Moreover is a news feed aggregator, providing feeds on hundreds of general and business news topics: category list.

Government

Downing Street Says is an unofficial weblog reporting “what the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman actually said in response to the lobby’s questioning, rather than what he was reported as saying”. Go to the weblog; the feeds available are listed under the sidebar heading “Syndicate (RSS/XML)”.

Help is at Hand: E-Gov News is a weblog produced by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), providing the latest developments and useful information about e-government and e-citizenship. Go to the weblog; an XML button at the foot links to the feed.

Legal

The Freedom of Information Act Blog provides news, views and updates on the UK Freedom of Information Act and worldwide FOI. Go to the weblog; the Atom feed button links to the feed.

The UK Criminal Justice Weblog provides the latest news about criminal justice issues from around the UK, drawn from media websites, government sources and criminal justice organisations. Go to the weblog; the XML button at the foot of the right-hand panel links to the feed.

The International Chamber of Commerce produces a number of feeds, covering news, rules, contracts and clauses: list of feeds.

What’s new on the UK legal Web is a weblog I maintain on the infolaw site. Go to the weblog; the Atom feed button at the foot of the right hand panel links to the feed.

The Virtual Chase (US) lists a number of legal alerts and current awareness services with feeds: list of feeds.

Getting started with an RSS reader

To use an RSS feed you first need to install an RSS reader (also known as an RSS aggregator). There are several popular free readers: the one I use is RssReader (download it from rssreader.com). The instructions below refer to that and will be slightly different in other readers.

Next, you’ll add the feeds. To do this, point your browser to the sites you want to monitor and look for the RSS/XML/Atom links or buttons (see “Where to find RSS feeds” above). You just want to capture a feed’s URL, so right click on the link and select Copy Shortcut. Then switch to the reader, select Add, paste in the URL and then continue, providing the desired title and allocating the feed to the desired folder. The feed title will now appear in the folder window and the reader will download the feed which will be displayed in the main window (an integrated web browser).

A feed item (or headline) generally consists of a title, a summary or the first few lines of the full article and a “Read More” link which will connect to the full version of the article (or story) on the web. So you can quickly scan the headlines in the reader and only need click through to the web if a story interests you.

You can create groups (folders) and drag and drop feeds into these, organising them to suit your needs. Clicking on a group name will by default display today’s headlines from all feeds in the group in the browser window; clicking on a feed title will by default display all headlines from that feed. It’s worth pointing out here that the maximum number of items in a feed is limited by number or timespan.

You can set your personal preferences, including whether or not to start the reader when Windows starts (recommended), how often to check feeds for updates (hourly is probably optimal), maximum number of headlines to store, font styles and sizes and so on.

Follow the above steps and you’ll be up and running with your first feeds within a half-hour. Spend the same time each day for a week to select, add and group new feeds and soon you’ll wonder how you ever lived without RSS.

Other RSS readers:

NewzCrawler (PC)
AmphetaDesk (cross-platform)
Radio Userland (PC or Mac)
NetNewsWire (Mac)

Where next?

It will be apparent from the comments above and the selected list of feeds that none of the leading online UK law publishers produces RSS feeds. Why not? To generate a feed from an existing content management system is quite straightforward and no ongoing overhead is involved. Publishers may believe that users will thus be avoiding their promotional messages, but with a bit of thought this need not be the case. On the contrary, the number of site accesses by feed users, and hence the opportunities to grab their attention, will actually increase substantially. In my personal experience, since starting to use RSS feeds I click through to the sites many times more than when they simply sat in my favourites folder. It’s clear that the publishers actually haven’t yet given it much thought and that supply will only follow demand. So why not get yourself started, discover the joy of RSS and demand the feeds you want now?