Curious thing happened to me this afternoon.
Yesterday, I’d done another Internet Monitor Dashboard – this time located at the following redirect: chester.wiki/pride. It attempted to pull together, from a position of relative ignorance on my part, some thoughts, contrasts and conflicting attitudes on the subject of LGBT Pride events, in particular in my city of residence, Chester – but also pulling back from the day itself (last Saturday) and taking a broader and historical point of view. I’m aware of its limitations, but felt it useful to attempt to try out the tech and show how it could be used, even if less effectively than it should have been.*
In a parallel way, I did a far better job on poverty and hunger, which I know a lot more about as I’m involved in helping to operate a local foodbank’s website. I was thus able to produce the following site: chester.wiki/poverty. Mind you, I was also able to find a lot more RSS feeds relating to the subject, which suit the Dashboard widgets currently available. Chester Pride’s website itself, for example, was not equipped with such feeds as far as I could see.
Which brings me to the subject of such feeds. One RSS I was waiting on to function was the Chester Chronicle feed at its Chester Pride dedicated section. The feed as I inputted it then looked like this:
The Chester Chronicle is actually pretty damn constructive about RSS. It has a link at the bottom of the homepage which goes to an explanation of how to extract a feed from any of its sections.
It’s taken from the Birmingham Post, mind – bit of editing needed there, I think! – but when, for example, I go to the Guardian newspaper, I am unable to find corresponding feeds to their respective content (which doesn’t, of course, mean they don’t exist – it just means I’m not up to the job).
As you can see from a closer look at the explanations, however, I’d actually missed out one forward slash in the feed. This might explain why it didn’t seem to work. It doesn’t explain why at least two items from today (though not the weekend reports) have appeared in the feed. Have the dear Chester Chronicle backroom people been adapting their feeds so something appears on one I wrongly constructed?
If so, we must doff our caps to what would appear to be a hyperlocal and local journalism-friendly approach to the distribution of news. They might, of course, make it even more friendly by putting an RSS button on their section pages, to avoid incompetents like myself missing out important characters. (I could do the same myself, actually; after writing this post, I realise I must!)
Which now brings me to the final issue to hand: as I reported previously, it would seem our local council and my local parish council have locked down their websites (either on purpose or by not thinking things through) as far as RSS is concerned, by a) not activating or b) removing what’s generally a basic facility on most content-management systems. This means journalists and interested citizens have to manually return to the physical website to see if the pages have been updated or not. RSS, meanwhile, works like a Facebook notification (and no one is ever against those, now are they?!): it tells you automatically when anything gets posted. It’s really damn useful, and helps spread any organisation’s messages at zero cost, and to a whole world of content-hungry people and media groups to boot.
I wonder if in the case of traditional newspapers which refuse to make RSS easily visible and available to the public whether this isn’t because their ad-driven business model requires page impressions and plenty of web traffic. The fears being generated are understandable enough, in this sense; what isn’t so clear, however, is why some organisations – the aforementioned Guardian is one – are embracing so wholeheartedly the full impression of entire articles on Facebook, in preference to an RSS which would allow their content to be distributed automagically via the growing sector of alternative local and hyperlocal organisations.
Why do we think the future lies in a smothering Facebook (my opinion – hey-ho, we’re still allowed to have them, right?) and not in an RSS environment we’d have far more control over? Facebook effectively (OK, only figuratively) burns your printing-press, and replaces it with a list of suddenly borrowed customer-information – ie your customers – in virtual spaces of their making. Right now, they give you plenty of dosh and exposure, but when your website traffic is close to non-existent, what as a content writer, developer and publisher will be your bargaining chip then?
Here’s my suggestion then, for the future we’re discussing: follow the Chester Chronicle model by making RSS easier – not more difficult – to access. You can still keep your website traffic with RSS because (at least as far as I know) the embedded link info of an RSS feed elsewhere can be the full text, intro text or simply just the story headline. It’s under your control. If your headlines are competent, people will still click through. Facebook’s alternatives may offer short-term growth – but mark my words, it’ll be cancerous long-term for the publishers who too readily give up their formerly jealously guarded distribution environments: ie their websites.
In a hyperlocal ecosystem where volunteer organisations learn synergy with more mainstream paid approaches, RSS could become the alternative to Facebook’s unseemly takeover of everything online. Do you really want to form part of a walled garden belonging to the behemoth, where the stats and tech are not under your direct control?
Reach out, then, I suggest, to initiatives like the Internet Monitor Dashboard and other approaches I am personally not aware of: you might find there are alternatives which could benefit us all.
And if I am wrong … well … it wouldn’t be the first time. I’m no longer deluded enough to think I can change an industry. Such foolishness lies firmly in the past. I’m now, quite simply, a very simple proofreader.
* In my defence, when I finally tweeted the Pride Dashboard link this evening, I did suggest that Chester Pride, the fabulous organisers of the weekend’s event, cloned the Dashboard, made it their own, and built upon it/radically changed it if necessary, with the corresponding knowledge and empathy they would bring to such analysis:
After all, what the Internet Monitor Dashboard, and wider project, brings to web traffic analysis is the ability to develop and build on content from the points of view of those most affected by issues. Truth comes from such closeness to experience and knowledge, and I think that is where we should be aiming.
Update to this post, 06/10/2015: I’ve just received this excellent overview and explanation by Damian Radcliffe – another welcome one in a recent series of other welcome articles – on the subject of hyperlocal publishing. Today’s report grapples with motivations, self-defined labels and a number of other fascinatingly documented issues – the keyword being documented, backed up as the observations are with carefully collected statistics. You can read more here. I suggest you do.