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Old data update tool gains new converts

Originally developed to help Netscape send out headlines to its portal page, RSS has found new life on blogs and online news sites. Now it could be poised to storm companies.

The Christian Science Monitor publishes its print edition Monday through Friday, so few readers expect news from the company on weekends.

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But when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry on Feb. 1, subscribers who had signed up for a special update service received an alert the moment the paper published its special coverage on the Web.

The paper was able to send out notices to its readers thanks to a technology known as RSS, or rich site summary. (It's also known variously as RDF site summary or really simple syndication.) Originally designed for updating Internet portals, RSS has found new life among publishers of Web logs and is starting to catch on with news organizations that see it as a way to keep readers notified and coming back to their Web sites.

"A regular reader of the Web site might not have thought to check in (after the shuttle crash), but RSS gave us a way to let people know that we had done something in response to the story," said Joel Abrams, partnership development specialist at the Christian Science Monitor. "This is a way of getting people to see more stories."

RSS was originally developed by Netscape Communications as a way to deliver news headlines to its My Netscape portal page. The portal project was not a huge success for Netscape, and the technology was eventually put on the back burner.

But it was too late. Although Netscape no longer had much use for RSS, the technology had been picked up by Web site developers, who found it extremely useful for delivering information about new updates to interested parties.

As the buzz grows around RSS, a handful of programmers have begun to play with business applications based on the technology, which they say provides a simple and useful notification tool for any kind of frequent and unscheduled updates.

One researcher has written an RSS application that sends out server status updates. That could allow an information systems department to keep users updated when there are server problems, so that people aren't constantly calling up to report network problems.

"RSS is proving to be a nice, robust and easily used tool for moving data...not just news headlines, but everything--from orders and inventory to whether or not the servers are up," said Ben Hammersley, a journalist who has written a soon-to-be-published book on RSS. "Thanks to the tools the RSS development community has made these past few years, it has a great future in the enterprise."

RSS does pretty much what its name says. It summarizes a Web site, distributing data about what is there. Just about any information that can be transmitted using (Extensible Markup Language) can be sent in an RSS format. That information can be picked up by a system that can read RSS data, and it can be reformatted and republished somewhere else. Sometimes the results are posted on a Web site. New tools called news aggregators can pull together multiple RSS feeds, regularly searching for updates and displaying the results for subscribers.

RSS is a natural blend with Web logs, which were becoming more and more popular around the time that Netscape was testing out the technology. Web logs--or blogs, as they're often known--are essentially Web sites that are updated frequently and contain links to other sites and other blogs. Because the whole definition of a Web log involves frequent updates, a system that allows readers of that site to find out about the updates would seem to be a natural fit.

"The real nice thing about RSS is that it provides a standardized format. It makes it really easy to aggregate data from a huge number of sources and manipulate it in new and useful ways," Mike Krus, who runs NewsisFree, wrote in an e-mail interview. NewsisFree maintains a collection of RSS feeds and publishes a news aggregator that allows people to collect and review feeds.

News others can use
The idea of syndication is certainly not unfamiliar to news organizations. Many major papers, such as The New York Times, distribute their stories to other newspapers through syndication agreements. News wires like the Associated Press and Reuters operate in a similar way, sending a constant stream of headlines, stories and updates to their members throughout the day and night.

RSS ups the ante by allowing news sites to update their readers directly. The distribution is multiplied when those readers also happen to publish personal Web sites that display RSS data.

The Christian Science Monitor launched its RSS feed in November 2002, and has seen traffic from the feed grow repeatedly each month since then, although executives did not have specific figures. It was one of the first news organizations to set up an RSS feed online and has since been joined by sites including The New York Times,, Wired Digital and CNET

For the New York Times, the RSS feed was a way to make it easier for Web sites to do what they were doing anyway--namely, linking to the publication's stories.

"The bloggers were going to a number of different news sites and referencing URLs, ours as well. It drives traffic and exposure, which is all good," said Catherine Levene, vice president of business development at The New York Times Co. "But we're a registration site, so when a user would click on these links, they would get a registration page which would block them from our site and bar them from seeing the page."

About a year ago, the New York Times signed a deal with Radio Userland, a content management software developer that produces a news aggregator, which allowed that organization to distribute RSS feeds.

"With these feeds, we can allow bloggers to post these links that allow them to bypass our registration page, so it's a better experience," Levene said. "From a user perspective, it made a lot of sense; it's driving page views and access."

Many of the bloggers, meanwhile, see what they are doing as the future of journalism. And for their purposes, sending updates to individual readers is exactly what they want.

"It's very, very easy now to create a Web page with the latest information...People are starting to use them inside their companies, and they produce RSS feeds," said RSS author Hammersley. "It's a no-brainer to tie them together."