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Credit: By Melissa Marques on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

While many have been mourning the impending loss of Google Reader, due to close on 1 July, a small team at George Mason University have been busy building their own alternative.

Created specifically for the university's Digital Humanities Now online publication, PressForward is a WordPress plug-in that acts as an RSS feeder with a built in editorial capability that could bring collaborative engagement with RSS feeds to the newsroom.

"We draw attention to content that would be valuable to the humanities community," explained Joan Troyano, editor of Digital Humanities Now at the Roy Rosenzweig Centre for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University, who commissioned the project.

In what Troyano described as a "pretty low distribution rate", Digital Humanities Now draws on around 600 news sources – from blogs to academic publications and Twitter accounts – to publish 20 articles a week from a possible 1000.

"We realised there was no easy way to do this, and no free way, and we as a scholarly community wanted to be able to encourage others to do it. But there needed to be an easy method to do that," she said.

The team at CHNM approached Aram Zucker-Scharff, a new media consultant and freelance web developer at George Mason University with experience in journalism, to build the platform and although the main current use is aimed at content aggregation for Digital Humanities Now, its potential uses are broad.

Zucker-Scharff described how he had previously worked as an economics blogger for United International Press, reading a lot of different RSS feeds and using them as a point of reference for new content or aggregating a collection of posts into one article to discuss a particular topic.

"For something like that it would have been great because I was working as a journalist and an editor, publishing direct to a WordPress blog," he said.

Journalists on a particular beat may have to review RSS feeds suggested by their editors and colleagues, as well as their own ideas, before discussing the various articles and topics as a team to make the right decision regarding publication, said Zucker-Scharff.

"Something like that, where the editors want to be able to have a hand in the process of selection for what articles get used, at the current point, before PressForward, that's very difficult to do.

"Having that reading process be a more shared experience isn't something that there were really many tools for, there was a lot of manual process steps that had to be gone through, a lot of emails back and forth, reviews of drafts, all of that stuff. Whereas here the process is within the WordPress dashboard, every step of the way is transparent to the editor and the result is that you can spend less time deciding on topics and pieces of content that you want to link to and more time formulating a post and a discussion."

PressForward works in the WordPress dashboard as a plug-in, pulling in RSS feeds and listing them on a responsive page where they can be reviewed, commented on and nominated for editorial consideration. Being a long-term RSS user, Zucker-Scharff and his colleagues have built in the ability to import OPML feed lists, and the incorporation of content not available on RSS with a "nominate this" button that creates web clippings.

The software is still in public beta, but has a well supported GitHub page, public Google group for users and no reported problems to date.

"This is a way to facilitate bringing in material from other sources and then redistributing it from your own site," said Troyano, "It could be the sole purpose of your publication or it could be just an element of your publication."

For journalists, it could provide a more collaborative way of sourcing stories, where members of the team are constantly commenting on and nominating relevant content throughout the week before they are discussed fully in an editorial meeting.

"People are especially interested in when we get the more direct social sharing from the dashboard fully functional," said Zucker-Scharff of the next stage of the plans, intended to give "more of the traditional reader functionality".

"I'm hoping to involve many of the journalists that I work with in testing the process for the similar functionality that they are interested in," he said. "Google reader, as I'm sure you're aware, is shutting down. A lot of people were working on it, especially folks who are doing reporting and who are doing professional aggregation.

"That's something I'm trying to keep in mind, building something for people who are ready to use it on all sorts of situations, academics, journalists the whole range."

PressForward is funded by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation and was built by Aram Zucker-Scharff, Boone B Gorges and Jeremy Boggs.

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