Every time I add an article to my website or send a cool new link to my wife, she asks me where I find the time to do all this stuff. Part of the answer, as I mentioned in a previous post, is that I stay up late at night. Too late.
But the other part of the answer—the part that makes Sara’s eyes glaze over when I talk about it—has to do with the way I view the web. In short, I use a news aggregator.
News aggregators, also known as news readers or feed readers, come in a variety of flavors—some as stand-alone applications, some integrated with a web browser, and some integrated with an email program. They all have the same function, though, which is to collect and organize articles from news sites and weblogs (a.k.a. blogs). Rather than surfing from site to site to read the news (or commentary or entertainment gossip or shopping deals) of the day, all of the information comes to you in a single, neatly organized program.
When you’re viewing a website and you see a little orange image with XML or RSS printed on it, you know that the site has a “feed.” With most news aggregators, all you have to do is drag that image and drop it into a folder, and presto, instant headlines. You can arrange the feeds any way you like, and you can speed through the headlines in no time. The aggregator is scheduled to “ping” sites at regular intervals to see if there is any fresh content. When a site publishes a new article, the aggregator will grab it and store it for you to view.
One of my favorite aggregators, SharpReader, gives you a three-pane view of all your articles. In the left column is a list of all of the news sources, categorized whichever way you want. Click on a folder or an individual news source and you’ll get a list of all of the articles in the upper-right pane. Select an article’s headline and a summary or excerpt appears below; double-click and the full web page appears.
A couple months ago I abandoned SharpReader for Mozilla Thunderbird, because Thunderbird efficiently integrates the news feeds into its email program. Now I use the one program for reading both my email and the news. If you’re using an Apple computer, I’ve heard that NetNewsWire works really well on the OS X platform. FeedDemon is a very nice one for Windows, with a polished interface and a collection of feeds to start you off. SharpReader, Thunderbird, and NetNewsWire are free; FeedDemon is $29.95.
The “resources” pages of my website are also news aggregators of a sort, using RSS to pull headlines from metacritic.com, The New York Times, and Christian Science Monitor for the pages’ right-hand columns.
As I write this, I get the uneasy feeling that the news aggregrator is a little bit like TiVo in that it’s an amazing technology with a core group of ardent admirers, but one with benefits that are difficult to communicate to the uninitiated. So, if something doesn’t make sense in this article, or if I haven’t explained this stuff clearly enough, let me know and I’ll try to make it more understandable. You can also check out CNET.com, a technology website that has a good primer on these topics.