How To Make News Readers Work For You

Google Reader's demise today is causing a little ruckus in the tech community, even though the writing has been on the wall for a while. There are also a lot of Google Reader alternatives out there, so there's no particular reason to panic.

But many people have taken this opportunity to suggest that the day of the Web news reader has passed and that Google Reader itself is no great loss. I disagree. News readers played a key role in making online media of all types accessible to a broader audience, even if they never caught on with the Internet masses. And they're still useful today, at least for a certain type of dedicated online reader.

So here's a handy guide to what Google Reader—and news readers in general—did for us, and what they can still add to your online life.

Zen And The Art Of News Readers

In the early days of the Internet, Web surfers sought out information the old-fashioned way—they searched for and visited individual Web sites and blogs to find what they wanted. Whenever you found a site you liked, you'd bookmark it for future visits.

Over time, though, prolific readers started to compile so many bookmarks that it became a pain to keep visiting sites just to look for new material. Multi-tabbed browsers helped, but opening more than 20-30 Web sites at a time could choke your computer.

Which is where syndication—i.e., technology that pushes articles and blog posts to you—came into play. The primary advantage of syndication was that readers no longer had to spend time checking again and again for updates on their favorite sites. Instead, they could see all those updates in one place. That place was the news reader.

Subscribe Now!

Syndication tools—RSS and Atom are the two most common ones—basically allow Web sites to offer readers "subscriptions" to their articles. If a site displays an orange RSS icon or link (such as the one pictured above in the lead image), clicking it subscribes the user to one or more "feeds" from the site that will display the most recently published posts on the site.

In the early days, your subscriptions turned up in a special browser window. Later, they would appear in standalone news reader applications.

That basic subscription model opened up vast new skimming and reading opportunities. By organizing different feeds into categories, news reader users can keep tabs on articles published by dozens, even hundreds, of subscribed Web sites. This turns out to be amazingly useful when you want to see what's new, because most readers can be set to highlight the most recently published material.

Categories also help you manage your time. You can spend work time catching up on the industry news you need to know and then spend personal time scoping out all of the news and special interest blogs that you read for self-enlightenment or just for fun.

True, news readers aren't the one-stop-shop for reading that they used to be. When RSS feeds first came out, many sites would offer full-text feeds of their articles, making it possible to skim the whole site without ever visiting it. Over time, though, sites began to limit their feeds to truncated versions of their posts, often in hope of drawing readers to the site itself in order to boost pageviews and to rack up more money from ads.

Despite such limitations, news readers gained quite a following in the early 2000s as hardcore Web surfers used them to read everything they could get their hands on.

A Little Bird Told Me

Two big changes for newsreaders happened in more recent years.

First, there was the birth of Google Reader itself in late 2005. Essentially Google Reader took the place of stand-alone news reader applications, and put subscribed-feed content in the cloud.

This was a big deal, since users no longer had to be tied to the single machine where they'd installed the news reader software—which, of course, contained all of their subscriptions. Suddenly it was possible to just log in with your Google account and find all your feeds in one place, no matter where you were.

The second big change was the advent of social media. As social platforms like Facebook and Twitter matured, they quickly became a resource for finding new stuff to read. Even better, it wasn't content that you had to go find on your own, but content that people you liked or followed had pre-vetted.

Google Reader's users could share material with each other in a similar fashion, but the social media networks offered many additional ways to interact with friends or followers—way more than a simple news reader could. And eventually they ended up draining attention from news readers.

It's not a stretch, in fact, to say that social networking killed off Google Reader. That's because Google's decision to axe Reader was a clear attempt to capture the social sharing that was on Reader site for its own Google+ social network.

Really, I Feel Fine

Google Reader may be disappearing, but that doesn't mean news readers are going away. Plenty of other cloud-based services would love to have your business:

  • AOL has launched its own AOL Reader service recently, complete with importation of feeds and an application programming interface so other developers might tie their apps into AOL's feeds, just as apps were doing with Google Reader. The service is in beta now.
  • Digg, the venerable link sharing and news aggregation site, is in beta mode for a new Digg Reader it's had in development since Google announced the shutdown of Reader in March.
  • Feedly, a pre-existing service that seems to the heir apparent to Google Reader, is quickly updating its service on both Web and mobile interfaces. Since Feedly was already a player in this space, it has a head start on catching many migrating Google Reader users.
  • Pulse is a news reader that delivers your subscriptions in the form of a magazine, much like Flipboard does with on mobile devices. If you like your reading presented in this way, it's worth a look.
  • The Old Reader is a very simple cloud-based news reader service that presents your articles in a straightforward way. It offers minimal features and no mobile app (although other mobile apps support it), but if all you want is fresh stuff to read and lots of it, this could suit you just fine.

In Case Of Emergency, Order Takeout

A quick note for anyone still using Google Reader up to July 1: You need to export your subscriptions from the Reader service ASAP so you can use them later in another service, if you so decide. Update: Google has extended the time users can pull their Reader data out for use in other news reader services until July 15.

Even if you're a Google Reader user suffering from existential doubts about the future of news readers, cloud services or the Internet in general, take my advice: You can save yourself a lot of work later if your doubts eventually dissipate by visiting Google Takeout before July 15. Make that, now.

Takeout lets you create an archive of your data from any Google service, including Reader. Once you've created the archive file, download and save the resulting .zip file to your local machine. If you ever decide to use another newsreader service, your new news reader can import the subscriptions.xml file inside the archived zip file to recreate your subscriptions.

Go On, Give A News Reader A Chance

Newsreaders aren't for everyone, of course. If you don't have a lot of time to spend online to read, then links suggested by your friends or followers on social media may suffice for you.

But if you have a need to keep up on the latest in some particular field—or several of them—you might find yourself best served by a news reader. Same goes for folks with a lot of time and passion to follow their personal interests online.

If you fall into one of those categories, then news reader services may be worth checking out. Go on, tune out the doom and gloom of today's news and give one a shot.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock