How I Want My News: TimesReader vs. Bloglines vs. … vs. Outlook?

I finally got tired of Bloglines this weekend and bit the bullet, figured out how to export my feed list in OPML and import it into other readers. That, plus some playing around with TimesReader, got me thinking about how I want my news, in the end with a pretty unanticipated result.

First, let’s talk about Bloglines. Relative to Pluck, the first RSS reader I tried, Bloglines was a dream. It was easy to use. It was performant enough. It was thin-client, meaning first that I didn’t have to download and install an application and second that it was accessible anywhere — I could read feeds on my machine at work or my wife’s machine at home and it was the same experience.

Over the years, however, I had some problems with Bloglines:

  • Bloglines didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be. Bloglines has this lame blogging tool included, which I can’t imagine anyone using to publish a real blog. It has a playlists tab which struck me as odd and confusing. The company seemed lost.
  • Bloglines didn’t evolve. This reminds me of MapQuest. Back in 2005, when Google Maps was launched and they blew by MapQuest overnight, I was — despite being a Google contrarian — actually happy. Why? Because in the preceding years, I felt like MapQuest was complacent, didn’t evolve, and basically deserved what it got.
  • Bloglines was slow and cumbersome. One example: I like to mark important items “keep new” for future blog fodder, but there is no easy way to un-mark lots of them.
  • You have to be online to use Bloglines. I do my best reading on planes so this was a big negative. (I’d often print posts so I could read them later. Ich.)
  • Bloglines didn’t provide a way to share newsworthy items. One of my favorite media/publishing feeds is Jill O’Neil’s shared items in Google Reader. As Jill churns through loads of information, every once in a while she flags an item for her feed, and the result is an expert-aggregated stream of very interesting stories.
  • The prior point is just one instance of a broader problem: Bloglines is its own, fairly cut-off world. The question then becomes how many worlds do I want to visit every day and in which world do I want to get my news?

I’d always struggled with the question of which feeds should I put in MyYahoo vs. Bloglines. In the end, I put the fun stuff on MyYahoo (e.g., Sharks scores, French news, E! gossip) and the serious stuff in Bloglines. That division reflected two facts: (1) I didn’t want to be buried in technology and business feeds every time I launched my browser, and (2) that MyYahoo is a bad place for serious feed-reading (e.g., you need to open a new window to see more than the last 3-5 stories, there’s no way to mark stories unread or share interesting ones).

Since Twitter’s in vogue as a news delivery platform, let’s ponder Twitter for moment. While Twitter is fun, I participate in that fun, and I do get the odd news story from a Tweet every now and then, there is no way that I want to use Twitter to get my news. That’s not to say, by the way, that Twitter isn’t wonderful for truly-breaking news. But my problem is specific: keeping up with about 100 RSS feeds related to technology and business. Twitter’s not the solution. In many ways, it’s part of the problem: if you have a finite number of “worlds” (or sites) you want to periodically visit, then Twitter is definitely one of them, and this reduces your capacity for the rest.

(And yes, I know I can get Tweetstreams as RSS feeds and thus eliminate the need to visit the Twitter world, but I’ve only done that once: for the H1N1 feed from CDC. Somehow, I have a desire to keep my Twitter world and my RSS worlds separate.)

Some might suggest that Facebook is the right place to get news, and I’d say yes if “news” means updates about my friends, their whereabouts, and their lives. I’ve sometimes heard Facebook referred to as the good news newspaper with highly personalized information, and I think that’s a pretty good description. But, as a place to read and aggregate 100 RSS feeds? No. In fact, I find it vaguely irritating when people status-update serious news stories (I can get them elsewhere, thanks) and quite irritating when people do business marketing with their status-updates. In terms of my “world theory,” the Facebook world has a clear position in my mind (“friends”). It’s definitely a world I want to visit and a world I want to keep pure.

This leads to the notion of “work friend” and LinkedIn. While I’d never consider making LinkedIn my primary news source, I do think that they have done a wonderful job with their news section. I’m not sure how they’re doing it, but I assume their using their knowledge of who my friends are and what they’re reading to suggest stories for me: and the suggestions are always quite good. So, news-wise, I view LinkedIn as a good place to find stories that I might otherwise miss, but it does not solve my problem of keeping up with 100 RSS feeds that I know I want to follow.

So now we come back to the RSS reader category. I tried Google Reader over the weekend, and while I preferred it to Bloglines, it still suffered from the must-be-online problem and the own-world problem. But I liked the UI better than Bloglines and it enabled sharing a feed of interesting items, so I was about to convert when I stopped and thought for a second about that RSS Feeds folder in Outlook 2007.

I imported my OPML file into Outlook and the rest was history. I hate to say it, and the last thing I thought I’d ever say was that I want “more stuff in email” but this seems to be the best solution for me. Why?

  • I can read offline
  • It’s one less “world” to deal with and a world where I already get plenty of news (from mailing lists and Google Alerts)
  • I can forward blog posts without having to cut and paste — yippee!
  • I can easily mark things read or unread
  • Because I can read offline, I eliminate the frustrating problem of scanning alerts offline. (Many alerts happen in the blogs I follow thus I now typically have the relevant posts already in my RSS feeds folder.)
  • The performance hit, once it’s initially setup and cleaned up, isn’t bad

In fact, the only thing I dislike is that Outlook treats RSS folders a bit too much like regular folders. For example when filing email, recently accessed RSS feeds appear in the recently used folders list. (In my opinion, you shouldn’t be able to file anything in an RSS feed folder, but maybe I’m too much of a purist.)

Finally, as long as I was in a self-reflection on news mode, I decided to check out TimesReader, which is built in Adobe AIR. Impressions:

  • Boy, is it pretty.
  • I wonder if it’s a paved cow path. Are they making the online experience look largely like the newspaper to show they can, or because that’s the appropriate way to experience the newspaper online?
  • It’s “another world” to have to visit, and seemingly a closed one. I was surprised to see no embedded hyperlinks in news stories though not terribly surprised to see no way to bring other feeds in. As previously discussed, I’m trying to minimize my number of worlds.
  • I’m a big fan of the New York Times, a subscriber, and a frequent reader, but I doubt that I’ll use the current TimesReader very often. While I definitely prefer reading the TimesReader version over the regular website version, I’m not sure I really have time for either. Perhaps if and when there’s a TimesReader on the Kindle and I upgrade mine to the bigger screen size, then maybe I’ll be a frequent user. But for now, firing it up to read the paper in its own world is as luxurious as reading the Sunday Times cover to cover, which I love, but rarely have time to do.

When I began my RSS reading journey I’d never have guessed that it would end up in Outlook, but that’s where I am now and suspect where I’ll stay for a while.

4 responses to “How I Want My News: TimesReader vs. Bloglines vs. … vs. Outlook?

  1. Intriguing analysis. The good thing though is that there are so many options to get your news. I haven't tried bloglines yet. But, NYT is my favorite too. I wrote a piece on similar lines recently.http://www.vinushankar.com/2009/05/nytimes-needs-strategy-now.html

  2. If you install Google Gears, you can read your feeds offline with Google Reader.

  3. Thanks John. I'll give it a try.

  4. A coworker shared this suggestion for a new reader: http://feedafever.com/#demo Looks pretty cool, if you'll pardon the bad pun.

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