Despite slow-growing adoption of the syndication format, which lets readers subscribe to receive updates from compatible websites, many publishers are making it neither easy nor worthwhile for users to do so, research by the University of Maryland's International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) found.
Los Angeles Times, BBC World Service and Fox News are among the best users of RSS, while al Jazeera, Guardian Unlimited and The New York Times are among the worst, the report found.
Comparing 19 big-name news publishers, researchers analysed the volume of content found in RSS feeds versus a search on the feeds' host site, whether feeds carry the same wire stories their websites do, whether they included key information like datelines and bylines and the speed with which stories published online made it into the feeds.
Although many stories were published quickly to RSS, researchers were otherwise disappointed by the range of services offered. They criticised The New York Times for not including in its feeds the same syndicated Associated Press stories published on its website.
"It is that breadth, that timeliness that has made The New York Times the top news site in the world," the paper concluded. "But its RSS feeds don't give users the same quantity and quality of news."
And, frequently, publishers do not even syndicate all of their in-house material via RSS. "Some news outlets only send out a certain number of stories per feed, no matter whether it’s been a slow news day or a busy one," according to the paper.
"Some news outlets idiosyncratically tag their stories and send out the major stories on breaking events, but not the secondary, more feature or analytical stories on those same events. A user doesn't know exactly what is not being sent via the RSS feeds without going back to the home site and checking - exactly what RSS users are trying to avoid doing."
Sites were also chastised for not including enough information in RSS article summaries, such as the time and date of a story's publication, as opposed to the time it appeared in the feed.
ICMPA gave BBC World Service a 2.75 score (out of four), noting its feeds included up to 75 per cent of the daily material published at the host website, while Guardian Unlimited, with a score of two, was criticised because "the slim RSS results very poorly matched the wealth of stories and multimedia found on the website search". The study suggested many users are better off reading Google News' top stories selection than using RSS.
Many editors may question Maryland's methodology, however, as the RSS technology was not strictly conceived as a deep, searchable research resource but as a timely information subscription and syndication technique. Dave Winer, an early pioneer of the technology, said the ICMPA's conclusions are "incorrect".
"I like getting short summaries of the news from feeds, and if I want more information, I can click through to the full stories," he wrote. "I know others disagree, but this is a matter of taste that they present as a matter of fact."
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