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As sure as the tides go in and out, the web continues to swell with new information. But as content online grows, so does the demand for ways to navigate through the deluge.

Thankfully some handy tools have been developed to enable users to streamline this information, the most invaluable of which for journalists is 'really simple syndication' (RSS).

RSS pulls together freshly published content from the web - be it blog posts, podcasts, or news - on subjects you choose. An RSS feed is an automatically updated summary of fresh web content syndicated from news sites, blogs and PR services, piped into the user’s computer, PDA, Blackberry or mobile.

Not only does this make RSS particularly useful for tracking news, but it sets it apart from other tailored, online news monitoring services such as email news alerts.

"Writing about a range of subjects, I have to keep up-to-date with news in different areas," says Derek Parkinson, freelance journalist and editor of the Low Carbon Board Report.

"RSS brings content to you, so you don't have to hunt through lots of websites. Feeds are easy to group together in folders, which gives it an advantage over email alerts. A few times I've missed a good news lead because an email has got lost in my inbox."

If journalism is your game, RSS does the donkey work for you. Above all, it makes receiving breaking news, tracking and chasing leads, researching topics and managing your favourite news sources, quicker and easier - a sort of personal filing and filtering system for content on the web.

(For more on RSS for newsgathering, read Paul Bradshaw's article.)

Behind the scenes all that’s powering RSS is an XML programme, which scours the web sniffing out sites for RSS tags in the source code. But you don’t need to be a techie to set up RSS - it’s easy:

Setting up a feed reader
First, you need to download a feed reader, sometimes called an aggregator or channel, which are mostly free - see the excellent AggCompare directory, where the prize for best RSS reader name goes to ‘Pimp my news’).

These are just software applications that turn RSS feeds into readable content and there are loads to choose from. Do a little research, because some readers include useful features for filtering, searching and archiving and make sure whatever you choose is compatible with your operating system.

On the subject of filtering, you may find that despite using RSS, you’re still receiving too much information. Feed Rinse, for example, lets you automatically filter out unwanted content by specifying words or phrases that you don’t want to see. It’s a bit like a spam filter for your RSS subscriptions, or 'RSS hygiene' as Feed Rinse puts it. It’s flexible too, so you can make modifications at any time.

Subscribing to RSS feeds
Once you have downloaded your reader of choice, go to your favourite webpages or blogs and ‘subscribe’ to their feeds.

This is a straightforward process - you click on the orange RSS icon, usually located at the top of a page or click and drag the link next to the icon or the feed’s url into your reader.

A website will usually offer a different feed for each of its main sections: Journalism.co.uk, for example, has feeds grouped by news, jobs, and features, among others.

For a list of feeds to subscribe to from across the web see: Syndic8.com or NewsIsFree.

For sites that don't already have them, you can create RSS feeds manually. To do this, you need to know a bit of html or use a website that creates feeds for you, like Page2RSS.com or FeedForAll.com.

Once you are set up, the next time you open your reader you will see all your recent RSS feeds in a directory pane, with links to the source.

Alternative ways to read your feeds
Web-based readers are also available, as opposed to the downloaded variety: Google offers a reader, described as 'an inbox for the web', which allows users to subscribe to bundles of feeds divided broadly by topic. The service also makes suggestions about feeds you might like to subscribe to, and you can add or remove selected feeds as you choose.

Similarly Mozilla Firefox has a nifty built-in RSS reader called Live Bookmarks, which automatically detects feeds and lets you activate and store them within your bookmarks menu.

Perhaps the most exciting advance in RSS has been its increasing availability via mobile devices using special readers, such as Google’s ‘reader for mobile’ and LiteFeeds.

Sites like NewsIsFree provide RSS via SMS text message, and RSS can be converted to email using services such as RSSFWD.

The multi-platform flexibility and capacity for refining web content is what makes RSS appealing to journalists.

"One of the most useful things about RSS is the ability to do keyword searches on a feed," says Parkinson. "This meant that I could quickly identify the few bits of useful information among the hundreds of releases every day. It checks through masses of information very quickly."

The minimal effort of setting up RSS will pay dividends: new information you have selected comes to you, wheat separated from chaff, via the device you choose.

According to US journalist JD Lasica, it 'turns your computer into a voracious little media hub' – it does that, but only after it has distilled and delivered to you the essence of your favourite websites.

Top five readers
  • FeedReader - free, works with Windows, several views of results, handles high volumes, downloads podcasts attached to items, allows for organisation and categorisation, e.g. to create folders and has a paid-for version for organisations.
  • 24Eyes - free, compatible with Firefox/Explorer, Macs, Linux and Windows, allows you to publish and share feeds (calls itself a 'dashboard for the internet'), has foreign language/country versions and lets you email items directly.
  • NewsGator RSS Suite - includes free readers for the iPhone, Macs and Outlook. FeedDemon for Windows allows audio file/podcast downloads and includes 'panic button' to detect unread items overload; NewsGator Go! for RSS feeds via Blackberry, smartphone or PDA; NewsGator Desktop, synchronises with web-based RSS. All come with NewsGator Online which has ‘edit locations’ option to set up feeds on mobile devices.
  • Bloglines - free, web-based service for searching, subscribing, creating and sharing news feeds, blogs and rich web content, available in 10 languages, mobile version for PDAs and mobiles, works with Explorer/Firefox, Linux and Windows
  • Google Reader - free, web-based reader needs subscription to Google account, allows item ‘sharing’ by clicking on an icon to instantly appear on your public page, works on any mobile phone browser and Firefox/Explorer.

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