Web News Wranglers

Take Control of Your News

Here's the great thing about all news filtering sites: Once you're accustomed to using them, you can easily capture their output as an RSS feed and drop it into a stand-alone news reader to exercise even more control over the news you receive.

In fact, that's the most powerful way to customize your news intake. Start by picking an online or downloadable RSS reader as a base of operations, and use it to create a nice, stable list of your favorite feeds. You'll have plenty of choices, including customizable home pages (see "Configurable Home Pages: Netvibes vs. My Yahoo"), Web-based news readers, dedicated software that gives you granular control over each feed and story, and even built-in RSS support in the e-mail clients and Web browsers you may already be using.

Trying out different readers may be easier than you think. Once you compile a list of feeds in one reader, it should let you export those favorites as a text file with the extension .opml. If you're careful to override Windows' sometimes-annoying tendency to save these files in .txt or .html form, you can try your list of feeds in almost any other reader by importing that OPML file.

Radio Userland helped jump-start RSS in that format's early days, and it still warrants a look today. Though it requires a download, Radio Userland works as an online reader, listing all feed items in one column, in reverse chronological order. This format, which has come to be called the "river of news" look, is akin to the inbox interface of most e-mail apps.

Plenty of other programs, including Google Reader, have played off this elegantly simple approach. In many ways, Google Reader is the news reader equivalent of Gmail. It completely forgoes folders, runs incredibly quickly, and is full of sweet Ajax-driven programming, such as a scrolling list of stories to the right of the main display. But as is the case with Gmail, Google Reader's customization options are limited. For example, you can sort stories only by date or by Google's relevance algorithm.

News reader beginners should test the waters with Bloglines, a rich online-only service that Ask.com purchased in 2005. Signup requires a valid e-mail address, but the site offers convenient starter packages of feeds named for the kind of person you are (for example, Bookworm, Conservative Politico, Parental Unit), and a two-pane reader displaying easily configurable folders on the left and news items shown in full on the right.

Bloglines' best feature is an unlimited number of specialized e-mail addresses that you can use to sign up for mailing lists so you can read them alongside an RSS feed. Items can easily be e-mailed, saved, or blogged. The site isn't terribly fast and needs more display options, but Bloglines rounds out its offerings with a mobile version, a really great blog recommender based on your existing subscriptions, and a downloadable news notifier.

Rojo works much like Bloglines, but adds some community filtering to help sort items.
Rojo works much like Bloglines, but adds some community filtering to help sort items.
A competing online reader called Rojo features similar preset subscriber categories and accepts OPML files, permitting you to upload your own subscriptions. Rojo defaults to a two-pane "river of news" view of relevant stories, as determined by the number of users who give "mojo" to an item by clicking a voting button. Other helpful options include time- and category-based views.

Rojo recently added a Today tab that enables you to see which stories are popular with all users, though its value is limited because few Rojo users vote. A browser "bookmarklet" lets you quickly subscribe to sites as you surf the Web. However, while Rojo is a solid online news reader, it doesn't let you re-sort items into different folders, and it doesn't have a notifier.

News Alogorithms: Findory vs. Google News

Both Google News (left) and Findory (above) focus on personalization by tracking which stories you click on and using that information to collect new stories likely to interest you into a customized news destination.
Both Google News (left) and Findory (above) focus on personalization by tracking which stories you click on and using that information to collect new stories likely to interest you into a customized news destination.
The algorithmically edited Google News is ultrafast and comprehensive, with options to tailor your news sources by established categories or by keyword searches. Its recommendation engine seems less intelligent and transparent than Findory's. Also, you have no way to vote a story down and no easy way to know which articles are recommendations (as opposed to standard Google News selections). But Google can use both your logged-in Web searches and your news reading habits to train its filters, so theoretically it has a lot of--if not too much--information about your preferences.

Findory's recommendation system works rather nicely, but it counts your click on a story as a recommendation before you get to read it--a more primitive approach than Digg's, for example. Still, Findory does tell you which stories are recommended and why. In addition, Findory includes many more blogs as sources than Google News does, and it lets you import or add feeds that you want it to monitor closely. Its lack of news photos, standing keyword searches, and the ability to move categories around the screen should be easy for Findory's developers to fix.

Edge: Findory

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