Sunday, January 18, 2009


Times-ly RSS Feeds: Why Don't They Stay Fresh?

For quite some time, my browser "start page" has been Netvibes. I don't claim to make full use of it, but I find it a very convenient way to scan and dig-down into selected RSS feeds. I have a tab for personal and otherwise hard to categorize boxes, lists and widgets (weather, TV programs, Facebook, my own blog, delicious bookmarks, and so on), tabs grouping rss feeds from "UK Media", "US Media", "French Media", one for "opinion" and one for "econ" (including business), plus one for Meebo.

In my UK media tab, I have feeds from the Independent, The Guardian, and the Times Online, plus a couple of others. At the moment, of the fifteen headlines from the Independent, only one is over a day old. The Guardian list shows none older than today (Sunday!). The Times (UK) Online is usually pretty fresh, I thought, but right now their "World" headlines are all five (V) days old.

The French publishers (le Parisien, le Monde, le Figaro, Libé) are all full of stories from today. The seven French-language feeds from the Russian agency, RIA Novosti (which I included on this tab because it was French-language news) are all less than three (III) hours old.

I could skip the "econ" tab because I don't expect much fresh business news over the week-end, but the stories from the Financial Times and NYT are all from yesterday and today; I think that is worth noting.

Nevermind the "opinion" tab; its contents are such a mixed bag, and uncadenced, that there is not much to notice about freshness.

Let's go back to the US media tab, now. At one point, I had a selection of feeds from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. The selection did not include "sections" I would expect to be rarely published. For the LATimes, I follow the National News, World News, and Local. For the NYTimes, I've given up and removed their feeds; I'll explain below. From the Christian Science Monitor, I follow "top" stories--now two days old, so I guess they respect the Sabbath and don't write on Saturday or Sunday.

The feeds from the NYTimes I followed were much the same categories as those from the LATimes: major, standard categories suitable for the top stories. But for some reason, the lists often got stale. Perhaps they forgot to put stories in the standard categories, just kept inventing newer and better categories/feed-names, then changing their collective mind and going was hard to tell. I was not willing to subscribe to fifty (L) from each paper and scan all of them trying to spot the fresh stories: that is what RSS is supposed to do for me! Now, here is the current status (extracts of a screen-cap from a few minutes ago) of the LATimes feeds. "1 mois" means the local stories are a month old; "1 semaine" means the world news is a week old.

The feeds are not always this stale. There is not a systematic lag of a week in the world news. These stories were "fresh" and appeared as "1 hour" old when they were one (I) hour old; but curiously, they have not been replaced by newer stories. Or, even more curiously, they may have been succeded by newer stories, but then the newer stories vanished from the list allowing these stale ones to reappear.

Why is it that British, French and Russian news agencies and papers master the administration of rss feeds and major American papers don't? A variety of possibilities come to mind:
  1. Too high-tech, can't find competent rss-feed managers in America.
  2. The problem is not in America, but in India: poor choice of outsourced administrators.
  3. Nobody notices. Americans don't consume rss feeds, so administration quality doesn't matter.
  4. Twitter has replaced rss.
  5. Americans consume the feeds provided by Yahoo!, Windows Live, AOL without supplementing their information diet with Times-ly titles.
  6. All of the above.

In any case, the Timeses get a much smaller share of my attention than European media do, simply because they make it too hard to find fresh content on breaking stories.

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