Startups Offer Online Publishing Alternatives

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By: Steve Outing

Updated at 9:45 a.m. Eastern Standard Time

As I noted in a column a few weeks ago, e-mail faces some serious spam-related problems — and a growing number of publishers are looking at alternatives to supplement it. One technology that looks promising is RSS, which stands for Rich Site Summary (A.K.A. Really Simple Syndication).

RSS publishing is in its infancy, and only a small minority of technologists and publishers currently view it as a viable alternative to e-mail delivery of content. But that could change in the coming years, as a new wave of entrepreneurs grabs hold of the concept. The new applications and services being created are designed to overcome the shortcomings of current RSS publishing solutions, and offer a spam-proof publishing channel.

If this pans out, RSS content publishing could in time become as important as e-mail and Web publishing.

I interrupt this column … Before I continue, allow me to clarify my thoughts on RSS vs. e-mail. Following my previous column on this topic, I received some heated criticism that I was overstating the RSS case — and urging e-mail publishers to abandon e-mail. That’s not so.

Here’s my boiled-down advice: 1) RSS is a technology worth deploying now, for it offers a publishing channel that’s not tainted by the spam disaster. 2) E-mail has been hurt by out-of-control spam and the spam-filter “false-positive” issue, but that does NOT mean it’s dying as a publishing medium (though there are industry pundits who believe e-mail is doomed). Far from it. Any news publisher who wants to thrive should be publishing content via e-mail and RSS. Publishing by e-mail is more challenging than in the past, but it’s still well worth doing. It’s not an either-or choice — and I erred if I gave the impression that it was.

Now, back to RSS-based publishing …

The current crop of RSS “aggregators” (software applications and Web services that serve as the user’s interface to RSS-published content) leave much to be desired as a publishing medium. In many of them, the user subscribes to any number of RSS “feeds” from favorite publishers, and the feeds are viewed as generic-looking lists of headlines. The user clicks on an RSS headline and is then taken to the actual content as it resides on the publisher’s Web site. The problem is that most branding is lost on RSS aggregators, as is the opportunity to identify any one piece of news as being more important than the rest with layout/design cues.

A second problem is that RSS software generally isn’t as good at alerting a subscriber to new content as is e-mail. Because e-mail is so widely used by Internet users, an e-newsletter plunked into a subscriber’s in-box is a sure-fire way to get noticed. By contrast, most RSS software — while it’s constantly monitoring and pulling in newly published content on the channels it’s watching — is more like the Web. RSS-software users must remember to go to the RSS application (or Web site) to see what’s new. Some RSS software provides alerts when a new item is posted to a feed, or an item meets the user’s search criteria.

The next wave of online publishing applications will solve those problems — turning RSS into something more visually and graphically interesting and that more closely resembles e-mail for getting a subscriber’s attention, but without the spam. The entrepreneurs working in this area even view them as “replacing e-mail” as a publishing tool. (It’s way too early to know if that claim will bear out.)

Here’s a look at some of the companies offering RSS applications:

Toolbutton



Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-based Toolbutton Inc. is run by Dale Janssen, who hails from the technical-education industry — where he published several hundred e-mail newsletters and says his previous company sent out about 20 million opt-in e-mails a month. “About a year ago,” he says, “I saw the inevitable decline of e-mail as a content-delivery method on the Internet. So I set out to find a replacement — and as the story normally goes — I did not find anything, so I built it.”

Janssen liked what he saw with RSS, and he’s especially enthusiastic about the RSS 2.0 specification, which adds some capabilities that support more sophisticated publishing. He points out that RSS 2.0 supports adding attachments to feeds. So, future RSS feeds could include audio or video clips and they can deliver actual content to subscribers, rather than simple text links to it, as is now the most common practice.

Toolbutton is designed to take advantage of RSS’ more advanced capabilities — and also to make subscribing to RSS feeds more user-friendly and less “geeky.” It’s a toolbar add-on for Internet Explorer. Users download a separate application, then can subscribe to channels from a number of favorite publishers. These favorite publishers’ logos then reside in the user’s toolbar. Click on one and you get the latest feed of articles published.

The Toolbutton publishing application allows publishers to alert channel subscribers when important new content is online. The company touts its subscriber-alert capability — what it terms “HTTP e-mail” — as being “almost like e-mail.” The difference is that the channel used to send these messages is secure from spammers. Toolbutton marketing materials explain: “Alerts replace e-mail as a way to send messages to your users.”

One intriguing feature that Toolbutton version 2.0 will have, says Janssen, is the ability for a publisher to download all of a site’s content — say, the full edition of an online newspaper. So, an RSS feed of the paper could include all the content, not just links to it as in traditional RSS text feeds. That means that a subscriber could be reading full content of an online newspaper via Toolbutton even while offline — because the content was imported previously while connected to the Internet via the Toolbutton application.

Toolbutton is probably better suited for the non-information junkie — those people who have a few Web sites that they regularly read. The idea is that the consumer has Toolbutton track five to 10 different publishers, and that content is tracked and highlighted at the toolbar level. Janssen suggest that the typical RSS aggregator layout, with long lists of publisher links, is “overkill” for the average online user.

The business model behind Toolbutton is based on upselling publishers to a premium version. Consumers download the Toolbutton application for free, and subscribe to content for free (unless the publisher is offering a paid RSS subscription, which Toolbutton supports). Toolbutton allows publishers to send out a set number of subscriber alerts for free, then charges beyond that. There’s also a revenue-sharing model, where users are asked if they would like to receive Toolbutton alerts from specific marketers, and that money is shared.

Klips



While Toolbutton is in the early stages of its development, a company with a similar concept has been around a bit longer. Serence, an information awareness and notification software provider based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, has a tool called KlipFolio. The Klips application also leverages RSS, creating mini-alerts that appear on the user’s desktop as new content is published to a subscribed channel.

Serence President and CEO Allan Wille says the motivation for creating Klips was that many publishers are “afraid” of RSS — “much of which has to do with poor brand representation, lack of control, and a general sense of giving away the farm,” he says. Klip aims to better serve publishers by allowing more control over branding, making it possible to build in revenue generators (such as content subscriptions or advertising), and making it easier for consumers to access RSS news.

Serence started working with RSS about 2 1/2 years ago, back when few people had heard of the format. Wille says the company was founded to create a new way for online publishers to monetize their content. One big problem he sees is that publishers are now starting to move into deploying RSS without any real plan to profit from it. They’re adopting RSS in the same way they adopted lots of other Internet technologies that came along in the last decade — just start experimenting with it and hope that a business model emerges later, he says. Klips is meant to allow publishers to get into RSS publishing with a revenue model in mind from the start.

The fundamental idea behind Klips is that it’s a tool for consumers to access any enabled Web/http information source. Klips is an awareness and notification tool that utilizes RSS by putting a commercial wrapper around it.

Wille explains that with the conventional RSS aggregator, all the content providers that a consumer subscribes to are placed next to each other in a bland list; brand identity is lost. While that might be OK for the user, it’s not great for the publisher who wants to stand out or have a special relationship with a consumer. With a Klip fed by a specific publisher’s RSS content, the publisher can add its own brand elements.

Klips, like Toolbutton, is a downloadable application for the consumer. But once installed upon adding a first Klips publisher’s channel, adding more Klips channels from other publishers is simple and quick, the company says. Serence is building a central “KlipFarm” directory of all publishers who offer the RSS-based Klips channels.

As with Toolbutton, Klips offers alerts that are more akin to e-mail news/newsletter delivery, but in a spam-proof channel.

For publishers, the technology supports paid content services, as well as free. Wille especially likes the idea of enabling free Klips content, but trying to upsell subscribers on premium services. Publishers don’t pay anything to publish via Klips, and Wille says that most tech-savvy organizations will be able to implement customization themselves. (If not, Serence offers consulting services to do the work.) Serence gets its money primarily by selling the technology to the corporate market, not from charging content publishers. Wille is contemplating schemes to earn money from Klips-using publishers, and revenue-sharing deals, but that’s to come later.

So far, Serence has persuaded a fair number of high-profile publishers to try out Klips. Around 1,000 content providers in total have adopted the technology to date. They include The Sporting News, CBC (Canada), Yahoo! News, and CNET’s News.com. Wille wants lots more publishers to start using his company’s technology. “The more content providers we have, the better.”

Quikonnex



Next, there’s Quikonnex, a “turnkey, soup-to-nuts publishing service” also based on RSS. This is a new U.S. company that is primarily targeting small publishers with an alternative to e-mail publishing. One of the company’s co-founders touts Quikonnex as “a system that could make e-mail irrelevant for anything but personal communications.”

Quikonnex is a stand-alone application that the consumer downloads to his desktop. He then subscribes to participating publishers’ content channels. Alerts are sent when new content is available (as with the systems described above). If a publisher is already publishing RSS feeds, users of the Quikonnex software can use it to subscribe to those existing feeds.

Founder and CEO Jim Gray is convinced that advertising is going to come soon to RSS publishing (a handful of publishers, including InfoWorld, already are experimenting with this). While the Quikonnex system currently is being used to publish free content, the next version is set to include a secure channel for paid content.

Quikonnex charges publishers a monthly fee to use its service. The company’s target market includes e-publishers with 1,000 to 10,000 subscribers and who are probably not currently using RSS. Consumers can use the Quikonnex application for free, but there’s a limit of 100 channels; above that, there’s a $15 upgrade to a premium version of the software.

Gray says his company is out to evangelize RSS, and educate smaller publishers on its benefits. He’s critical of e-mail publishing because of the hassles of dealing with bounces, unsubscribe problems, errant spam filters, and anti-spam vigilantes who wrongly block ethical publishers’ e-mails. “The value of an e-mail address I believe is now close to worthless,” he says.

MyWireService



MyWireService is an RSS aggregator that’s Web-based, and its developers are taking aim at a general consumer audience. Their goal is to make RSS more mainstream.

Co-founder Gay Gilmore says she and partner Troy Gilmore recognize that the current crop of RSS software has shortcomings, especially from the perspective of news publishers seeking to use it as a spam-proof channel. “Unfortunately, most of the [RSS] software that is available has taken an e-mail metaphor/approach to the problem, which duplicates all the headaches of clicking and marking [articles] as read,” she explains.

Forcing people to download a separate RSS aggregator is too much to expect, Gay Gilmore says, which is why MyWireService is providing a Web-based RSS reader that’s accessible by anyone, anywhere.

And the RSS-publishing community needs to stop talking in acronyms (RSS, XML), and stop talking about “feeds” and “blogs,” she says. Rather, we need to simplify RSS so that it’s merely a technology that sits in the background and that brings consumers the content they want in a spam-proof channel.

Future iterations of MyWireService will have some user-interface enhancements to improve the RSS-reading experience, says Gay Gilmore, such as a “news roll-up” view. That means that if a consumer is subscribed to 20 RSS feeds, and they’re all talking about the same thing, “we’ll show it at the top and you can see who else is talking about it right in that place.” (That feature is currently being tested.)

MyWireService is in beta testing, and consumers will be charged an annual fee of $9.99 for the service (with the first month free). The justification for charging consumers comes from offering features that aggregate content from topical feeds. For example, if you’re a sports aficionado, MyWireService will sign you up for a set of sports feeds and aggregate topics from multiple sources for a more pleasant and efficient reading experience.

News publishers may have no dealings with MyWireService directly, but it’s worth pointing out as an example of how RSS is being made more suitable for technically challenged users. That’s good for publishers wishing to deploy RSS as a supplement to e-mail and Web publishing.

Push, Redux



You may be reading about these new applications and have a sense of deja vu. That’s because each can be described as “push” technologies — as in, they push content to subscribers digitally, rather than force consumers to pull the latest news (by remembering to regularly visit a Web site). E-mail publishing, of course, is a push technology, too — the oldest one.

Each of the applications above has some characteristics that are akin to Pointcast, the most celebrated push technology of the mid/late 1990s — which eventually flamed out spectacularly. Will these entrepreneurial experiments fail, just as Pointcast did? Not necessarily, because Pointcast may have been ahead of its time.

Today’s Internet is a different environment, and many more online users are now connected via always-on broadband connections. Pointcast was born in the dial-up days. And e-mail as a publishing tool is showing signs of wear and tear, which wasn’t the case in Pointcast’s day. Also, Pointcast was based on proprietary technology, while these new applications are based on the open RSS standard. The time is right for push to rise again, these entrepreneurs say.

As Gay Gilmore explained of her MyWireService, “In a way, we are reinventing Pointcast” and the whole notion of digital “push” publishing.




Letters



My previous column about blogging hard news brought in these letters:

The Immediacy of Blogs

I agree — this in an excellent time for bloggers to start thinking in terms of the immediacy they can work with. This is what I’d hoped for when I first went online in 1995, but due to the way Web sites were created at the time, mostly hand-coded, this didn’t happen.

Now we can do a lot! This is particularly good for those who may be dealing in “smaller” news that might otherwise be ignored by the larger media and wire services. Local news comes to mind, and more specialized kinds of things. We’re just ironing out the kinks, but we’ve tried to get to the point of immediacy in the last couple of weeks with some demonstrations that are going on in the U.K., the California election, and other things. I’m probably the only one that reports on men’s rights groups internationally, and there is a lot going on, in a lot of different places. This is not yet of interest to the major wire services, but in the meantime, people of the movement want to know what’s going on, and where.

With my blog, and as soon as I can manage to develop more of those fast contacts sending me information, I can let people know about things that may be happening in their own backyard. I’ve had a lot of contacts from people since starting blogging in June. (I converted from an e-mailed newsletter.) About half of them come from people alerted to something going on right where they are, and they’re glad to know about it.

I think people are beginning to recognize that blogs aren’t just for journaling and daily personal diaries anymore. It’s really exciting watching this all evolve!

Trudy W. Schuett



‘Chicago Tribune’s News Blogs

We have done news blogs a couple of times over the last couple of years. They have been rather successful for us. Here are a few examples: 1, 2, 3.

Mark Hinojosa
Chicago Tribune



It’s Cheap to Blog News

Great idea, although most reporters wouldn’t have time, especially traveling national reporters, [who] already complain about the Web work load.

It is possible to chase the headlines throughout the day, though, and with no budget, compete in a way with Drudge and The New York Times, using more foreign coverage in the mix. (http://www.southerner.net/blog/)

Most papers don’t even do this. All the Newhouse papers, and the one’s better at the Web, won’t spend the money to update all the time, because they have the wrong business model for it. The New York Times was doing it under Howell Raines, but not as much now. But they have those great pop-up windows for photo essays, maps, and other graphics.

Most newspapers, apparently, don’t realize how cheap it really is, apparently, to blog.

Glynn Wilson, New Orleans correspondent
The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor



I also received this letter about my column on RSS feeds:

Another RSS Use

I couldn’t agree more with your comments regarding the use of RSS feeds on newspaper sites, but I think an additional use I’ve not seen discussed much is using RSS for delivery of syndicated content to newspapers. As RSS becomes more sophisticated and accepted, I’ve become increasingly puzzled as to why publishers (and syndicates) still rely on antiquated methods (such as ANPA-formatted streams or e-mail) to collect wire material, content from remote sites and journalists, etc.

Surely RSS-based data streams would be of greater use to publishers in their efforts to manage, publish, and re-purpose their content.

Jeff Litvak




Other recent columns

It’s Time to Blog Hard News on Your Site, Sept. 10
With E-mail Dying, RSS Offers Alternative, Aug. 27
The Trouble With Ad Targeting — and a Solution, Aug. 13
Blogs Have a Place on News Web Sites, July 31
Attract the College Set With Design, Interaction, July 16
How the Web Can Restore Journalism’s Credibility, June 25
Previous columns




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