Two of the newest and most relevant developments in online journalism are RSS feeds and podcasts. The first is a means of accessing website content without having to visit the site itself. The second is a video or audio clip that can be downloaded straight onto your mp3 player – often by RSS. The two technologies have only recently become mainstream, and as such, the ethical implications of their expansion are relatively unforeseeable.
Student in Germany listening to podcast
RSS has served as an acronym for various descriptions of the technology, including “really simple syndication,” “rich site summary,” and “RDF site summary.” Essentially, it is a computer file format that downloads straight from a content provider – website, blog, e-zine – to the computers of registered users.
The technology was developed in the second half of the 1990s but only became popular after the turn of the century. The New York Times set a standard for other online publications in 2002 when it began offering RSS news feeds. By 2005, Apple and Microsoft had both updated their web browsers (Safari and Internet Explorer) to include RSS feed capabilities, and since then RSS has been adopted by rapidly proliferating numbers of news sites and websites.
In some ways, RSS feeds have answered the busy 21st century news-reader’s calls for easy-access information. Information arrives at a subscriber’s computer every time a content provider updates its website. Readers get their news as soon as it’s posted – web surfing and site-checking are no longer required. Also, unlike newsletter emails, RSS feeds arrive at users’ computers via aggregators, which collect all the incoming RSS feeds, condense them onto one page, and organize them – by date, publication, type, etc – somewhat like Google News. [*note: Google and Yahoo both have homepage sites with RSS readers built in].
It also evens the playing field for big media and bloggers: in your own media aggregator, you can access the Daily Kos and The Globe and Mail at the same time and instantly see which has more informative news for the day.
For better or worse (or neither), RSS has expanded far beyond basic news syndication. RSS feeds export music playlists, lists of Top-100 books, and droves of personal blogs. In the fall of 2006, Microsoft announced that it would update its RSS software to become capable of managing e-commerce.
A new implication of RSS’s rapid proliferation is a whole new brand of news fatigue. Jeffrey Veen, a consultant and design manager for Google, described the phenomenon as a life of “un-bolding”. As he wrote in a 2004 blog post, “I think RSS and blogs and news aggregators had finally gotten the best of me. There were literally hundreds of subscriptions haunting me each day; a bright red counter showing unread posts creeping up into the thousands.”
A financial dilemma evolves for news providers if readers, exhausted by incoming news, begin only scanning headlines. If readers avoid going to websites, then advertisers lose incentive to buy advertising space. Monetizing RSS feeds has been a quagmire. Charging fees for readers to access feeds would be problematic, since the content can be accessed free at the provider’s website, but publications need money to come from somewhere.
Setting up classified sections for RSS has been one of the easiest solutions, and it has been extremely beneficial for some content providers. RSS aggregator Feedster www.feedster.com has partnered with job listing sites, combining job posts from different sources and providing users with a more complete job list than a single provider could offer.
Alternately, some websites are selling RSS advertisements. Slate.com often includes an advertiser’s logo under its news blurb. Somewhat more invasively, other sites actually create RSS “articles” that advertise products and are listed along with headlines. Besides opening new floodgates for unwanted messages, the system also enables clever advertisers to hide their promotions in standard news form, misleading readers to believe that ads are news content. Making ads distinguishable from news is a dilemma that news providers will face in the coming months and years.
Advertisement issues aside, other ethical implications of RSS feeds fall in line with the dilemmas presented in this website’s New Media Trends section, including the elimination of a newspaper editor as gatekeeper for readers.
JD Lasica researched RSS in 2003, early in its popularization. One of his interviewees, journalist Shayne Bowman predicted at the time that “RSS feeds will start replacing e-mail newsletters because they do a better job of providing structure and a more efficient means of parsing through data."
Podcasts take RSS technology to the next level – they are video or audio clips that download straight to subscribers’ computers and mp3 players. Like RSS-fed news stories, podcasts are sent from content providers as soon as they are created. Unlike news stories, they are multi-media, and though they were slow to enter the mainstream media, they took the blogosphere by storm. Tony Khan of the Boston public radio station WGBH likened the mainstream media’s attempt to learn podcasting to “ an elephant learning how to tap dance,” in a 2006 interview with JD Lasica. Citizen journalists’ inclination to experiment with diverse technologies, sources of information and production styles, coupled with their willingness to syndicate raw, sometimes unimpressive video made them prime producers of podcasts. “The thing about podcasting,” explained Khan, “is that you can implement your ideas relatively quickly. The big ideas don’t stay abstract, they can be applied right away.”
Mark Glaser of the Online Journalism Review has suggested that, in radio journalism’s decline (“a victim of massive corporate buyouts,” he calls the medium) podcasting may revolutionize broadcast media. In a way, he says, podcasts are the TiVo of radio – subscribers can access the information they want whenever they want it.
Predicting the ethical dilemmas and production trends of podcasting, however, is a difficult task. “Any time somebody wants a definitive answer about what’s going on, what’s a trend and will it continue, my impulse is to say try not to even think in terms of certainties and trends – it’s too early,” said Khan. Trends aside, Khan is optimistic about the level of creativity and the pace of innovation in podcasting.
Lasica is loath to predict ethical quandaries for podcasting because he sees it as very similar to (and integrated with) pre-existing citizen journalism. As such, many of the ethical, and inherently legal, issues pertain to copyright. Citizen journalism has often turned copyright on its head, incorporating the concept of “creative commons” into most blogged material. But legal implications abound, especially when podcasts can contain copyrighted video clips.
Lawyer Colette Vogele created a Podcasting Legal Guide based on the Electric Frontier Foundation’s Legal Guide for Bloggers. Like Lasica, she sees podcasting ethics paralleling blogging ethics. “Cross-linking and mentioning contributors in [podcast] show notes seems to be very commonplace and a known ‘best practice’,” she says. Plus, many podcasters are already familiar with Creative Commons copyright licenses. “One core value of those licenses relates to properly attributing others' works.”