All the News That’s Fit to Read: Designing Your Reading Workflow with RSS

256px-Rss-feed.svgOur first Digital Pedagogy workshop for the spring semester, “All the News That’s Fit to Read: Designing Your Reading Workflow with RSS,” will take place Tuesday, February 2, from 4:30–5:30 pm, with a repeat on Friday, February 5, from 1:30 am–2:30 pm. The location is the Johnson Center studio (Abell 102). Note that this location differs from where we met last fall. Bring your own device (laptop preferable), or there are a limited number of laptops we can check out from the library.

As the production of texts and other forms of content has largely moved to digital and online platforms, staying informed about one’s discipline and, more broadly, about one’s topics of interest involves a digital “reading workflow.” From time to time, it might be worthwhile to step back from our immersion in the content of our reading, reflect upon the elements of the workflow itself, and ask whether there are practices that could improve our reading and make the process more effective. For example, Alan Jacobs, professor of humanities at Baylor, recently posted a description of his reading workflow. In this week’s workshop, we’ll discuss how we read online and focus in particular on organizing our reading with RSS syndication and aggregation.

Locate the sources. First, of course, each of us has to identify our “sources”:  those locations on the web that publish the kind of content we are interested in. Academic journals, online publications of various sorts, websites of professional and disciplinary groups and organizations, blogs, etc.–these are the places you go to stay informed and find new and regularly updated content–articles, essays, reviews, papers, posts, whatever. So let’s assume that you have some X number of sites that you would regularly want to consult. And that number almost certainly grows over time as you expand your awareness of resources in your field. Jacobs notes in his post that he follows “about 300 sites.”

Discover the feeds. So now you have a sense of where to look, and the question becomes, “what’s the most efficient way of looking.” What’s the latest on the website of Nature? How can I keep track of recent philosophy papers? Are there new posts at the Marginal Revolution economics blog? One way to find out is to go to the website and look. This requires you to remember what you saw the last time you visited the site, and to compare that memory (probably faulty) with what you see now. Not very effective, and quite time consuming.

Instead, you want to follow the website, and have it inform you whenever it publishes new content. That way, instead of you having to go there to find what’s new, it comes to you. Typically, there are multiple ways to follow a website. Most sites today have accounts with one or more social media platforms, so you can follow the site’s Twitter account, Facebook page, or whatever to be notified of new content. (Take note that the social media “follow” icons on a site are different from the social media “share” icons). That, of course, requires you to use a particular social network and to be attentive enough to it so that you catch the notifications, which will usually give permalinks directly to the new content. Another option that may be offered, though it’s less frequent these days, is to follow the site via email; when there’s new content, you’ll get an email notification. But really, who wants even more stuff in their inbox?

The best and most effective way to follow a site is to subscribe it…more specifically, to the RSS feed of new content that the website produces. Websites that regularly produce new content almost always employ a web standard called RSS, which stands, variously, for “Rich Site Summary” or  “Really Simple Syndication.” The site may or may not have the orange RSS icon displayed, but even if it doesn’t, it probably cranks out a feed. First developed in the late ’90s, RSS allows websites to syndicate their content, that is, to push it out to people and places that are watching and listening for it. A site, such as a blog, may offer a single RSS feed, or, if it is larger and more complex, produce multiple feeds, segmented by category and topic; the New York Times, for example, has dozens of different RSS feeds that one can follow, while Nature has over a hundred.

Use a feedreader to subscribe to and aggregate your feeds. In order to access RSS feeds, you need to use a piece of software called an aggregator or feed reader. This software allows you to subscribe to a feed, organize your feeds into folders, set up display options for how to view your content, mark favorite items, and otherwise manage the subscription and reading process. “Aggregation” is the complement of “syndication”; these concepts and practices lie at the heart of how the open web works. We also refer to this as a “pub/sub” model of information transfer, short for “publication” and “subscription.”

There are several choices for setting up an RSS feed reader, but my recommendation at this point is to use one called Feedly. It is a free service that you can access through your browser or with a mobile app. You can organize all of your feeds in an attractive format that allows you to quickly scan new content in your chosen feeds and to read items in the Feedly interface or back at the source website.


You can easily add new feeds to Feedly by entering the URL of the site you wish to follow, or you can also search by site title and by topic. If the site produces one or more RSS feeds, Feedly will find them. You then organize the feeds into folders, which will display all of your content. For example, in my Janterm course How the Web Works, I subscribed to all 30 of my students’s blogs in Feedly in order to track and read new posts; here’s a screenshot showing a bit of the interface by which I managed these feeds:

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 9.04.55 PM

In the workshop, we’ll walk through the process of getting started with Feedly and demonstrate some of its features. It’s a quick setup, and you can be up and running very quickly. The mobile app is also free and provides an attractive interface for reading on a tablet or phone.

An option: sending articles to a “distraction-free” interface. One element of some reading workflows, such as that described by Jacobs, is to use services such as Readability, Instapaper, or Pocket to save items to read later in a minimalist interface or even to send them to a Kindle or other e-reader. I won’t be focusing on this step, but just wanted to include it for the sake of reference.

Archive your content with social bookmarking, and annotate with Again, included here for the purpose of completing the entire cycle of the reading workflow. In workshops last fall, we discussed social bookmarking with Diigo, and web annotation with If you want to be able to refer back to an item later, save the URL to your collection of bookmarks in Diigo (and see what some of your colleagues are reading). And, for persistent markup and annotation of your texts, try

So, dear reader, if you have made it this far, congratulations. And join us this week for further conversation about your reading workflow.

Further Resources