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By Dean Tudor

Help for News Junkies

Dean Tudor


Over the past few months, RSS as a Web-Internet entity has really taken hold. More people are aware of it, and more people are using it. It has even made it into mainstream media (e.g., Jack Kapica's "RSS holds promise for on-line news delivery", Globe and Mail, April 1, 2004: NOT an April Fool's column). A Google search shows more articles in magazines and on various Web sites. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary or RDF Site Summary. It is a way of distributing news headlines, summaries, and weblogs on the Web. This RSS newsfeed requires a "news aggregator", a program that can read the XML (extensible markup language) coding of the news headline and opening paragraph or summary or deck. For this sub-head, it all depends on how the original news source wants to handle it. Some of the better ones will send a summary rather than a teaser. You can buy the aggregator program (shareware) at a reasonable cost or download freeware such as FeedReader (www.feedreader.com). Yahoo and Google drill-through directories will find them for you (just enter "news aggregators") and check, to see which ones are free. Try one or more of the freeware until you feel comfortable with the technology, and then check the sharewares for added features that you might need. All RSS newsfeeds are usually free for private use; most are free for non-profits. Commercial operations must pay a fee.

News junkies love it…To find any story, just click on the headline, and a browser window will open for you to read the original Web site. AND NO ADS!! …until you get to the originating site… Keeping up with the news, for freelancers without the assistance of a corporate media library, has never been easier.

A good value of RSS is that it runs in the background, collecting news headlines while you work away on the Internet. Of course, you must be connected, and it helps to have broadband so that this collecting and your own work do not slow down to a crawl. You can set up the news aggregator to collect every 10 minutes through to every 10 hours. You can keep the program minimized and these headlines will pop up as a separate window, sort of like a news alert, which is what they are. Of course, you can turn this feature off, but then why are you bothering to collect news so frequently if not to check it all the time? You can specify anywhere from 5 to 50 headlines for each collection. You can archive (keep on your computer) the headlines anywhere from one session to over a month. Of course, since the headlines are connected to the original URLs, then the headlines are only as good as the site's original archives. The Toronto Sun currently does not offer archives beyond one day, so you are out of luck if you try an URL that is more than a day old. Most papers are good for one or two weeks. Magazines and broadcast sites are extremely variable. Magazines do not put up everything, of course, and broadcasters reuse URLs constantly, in attempts to keep up to date.

Any Web site can setup an XML RSS feed: large media concerns such as the New York Times, CNN, CBC, right down to community papers and your next door neighbour's Weblog. Of course, there is too much news floating about, which means that you must get specific for your own needs. I am assuming that readers of this column are all journalists and writers, either employees or freelancers. I am assuming that you also have an interest in breaking stories in "news" and in subject specialties. For example, a news aggregator is perfect for a freelancer specializing in the business beat, or science, or sports. My own specialty is the wine beat, and since I got my RSS loaded, I can barely keep up with just the wine news.

Finding XML feeds is easy: there are a dozen or so major collectors that will gather news from thousands of news sources (newspapers, magazines, broadcast, blogs, etc.). You can use them for breaking or latest news, and also search - and set up - for specific topics. If all you are interested in is a specific product, such as Gothic Epicures food, then just enter that phrase, and whatever is published will be available. But since you are so specific, do not expect many hits over the course of a week. You would be better off searching for an industry. I usually search (and encode) "wine OR winery OR wineries OR winemaker" automatically catching all the plurals. This satisfies me. I even have an RSS feed patched into my Web site, so you can visit www.deantudor.com and find a link to NewsTrove's search for wine articles.

If you find a news service with an orange rectangle button somewhere on its page, that will be a free invitation to pick up an URL for the XML feed. You can cut and paste this URL into your news aggregator. I have several subscriptions to stand alone XML feeds, from the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the CBC. You subscribe - for free - by category: each has a "national" feed, each has a "local" feed (in my case, Toronto), and each also has "business", "entertainment", "sports", "world", "breaking". I also have a Toronto Blue Jay feed; you could add your own favourite sports team. The media companies do not seem to have specific search XML feeds.

For those specific search feeds, just go over to the major collectors. An added bonus from the collectors is this: should you NOT want a news aggregator, or only have occasional use for the news, then you could just bookmark the main site of the collectors and go over once in awhile to pick up the leading stories. They will all be displayed on the page, ready for you to click through to the original site. Here are some collectors (news sources include CBC, CNN, BBC, NY Times, and thousands more):

www.newsisfree.com (or xml.newsisfree.com)
www.moreover.com (or p.moreover.com)
www.topix.net (or rss.topix.net)

…just pay attention to the instructions, and you are away!!

I also have single sites such as SauteWednesday, Decanter, and TizWine.

Typical subject search URLs to cut and paste will look like this:

  • p.moreover.com/cgi-local/page?o=rss&c=Consumer:%20food%20and%20drink%20news
  • www.allheadlinenews.com/cgi-bin/news/xml/newsxml.cgi?search=wine
  • www.allheadlinenews.com/cgi-bin/news/xml/newsxml.cgi?search=winemaker
  • feedster.com/search.php?q=wine+winery+wineries+winemaker&sort=date&ie=UTF-8&limit=50&type=rss

There is a special source of RSS at Voidstar. The programmer there has developed a Google application that takes any search you do at news.google.com and turns it into an RSS feed. You can have as many searches done as you wish. Here is the URL I use for wine searching:


Unfortunately, this developer has had a few "cease-and-desist" letters from Google, and the URL may be history after Google launched its IPO. However, in that case, Google would probably offer its own XML feed. It already has daily E-mail news alerts with URLs, based on your specific searches. The news alerts are pretty good. I still have my Google wine alerts by E-mail. During the Toronto mayoral elections in 2003, I had Google E-mail news alerts for the three leading candidates.

And speaking of Google: news has come that after the IPO, Google will unleash its version of free E-mail accounts. It will be fast, employ a full-scale search mechanism, and offer ONE GIGABYTE of free storage. At the same time, it will offer connecting URLs to subject matter in your stored E-mails, including adverts…So there will not be any adverts, but there will be URLs directing you to the adverts. Hmmmmmm…

You will see in another place in this section the beginnings of a revitalized book review column. I just want to re-emphasize that there is a lot of knowledge packed into such book items known as "textbooks". These are usually referred to as Shelf-Help books, specializing in solutions that are supposed to be readable by college students (and hence by active journalists?). Often, they come with study guides or discussion "study" questions. And they always come with further readings and footnotes. There are a few in the book review section, but here are some other textbooks that I have been living with lately. They were sent to me by sales people at their respective publishers, for review purpose and for alerting my students to their existence. All of them can be supplemented by the free web resources listed on my MegaSources site (up continuously since 1994), www.ryerson.ca/~dtudor/megasources.htm

First up is Mass Communication in Canada (Oxford University Press, 2004, 333 pages paper covers, ISBN 0-19-541804-2), now in its fifth edition. The authors are academics Rowland Lorimer from Simon Fraser and Mike Gasher from Concordia. The book was last revised in 2000 (and first published about two decades ago; I used it at that time in my Canadian News Media course at Ryerson University). It was a slighter book back in the 1980s. The authors also state this time out that their fourth edition (2000) "did not take the Internet seriously enough". Wow - I have never seen an admission like that in print…Anyway, this is a text meant for Canadians, covering all things Canadian plus some communications theory. New this time are more illustrations, readings and bibliography, annotated Web sites, and an updated glossary. And of course, it takes into account the huge impact that the Internet has had. Chapter topics deal with print journalism (mostly newspapers, not much on magazines), broadcast journalism (radio, TV, satellites, "new" media), communication law and policy and privacy in Canada, media ownership (hard to be current in this area!), and the media treatment of specific recent events such as 9/11, Canadian elections, the 2003 Iraq war. There was just one small mention of NewsWatch Canada, in a reprinted article, not an original text. Also, in reading the communications theory chapter I found the word "implicatures" defined parenthetically as "(implied meanings)". When I went to the glossary, it told me that implicatures was "implied meanings". According to the index, the word is never used anywhere else in the book. So I am no further ahead. Minor skewering aside, the book has value for its four major concerns: law and policy, media ownership, profession of journalism, and news technology. It is well-worth reading.

On a more mundane but extremely useful level are computer workbooks. Most manuals supplied by software manufacturers are unreadable or bloated; the computerized versions are hampered by silly wizards. You will have to turn to computer workbook specialists for the real goods. I like WORD 2003; basic functions (Logitell Publishing, 2003, 344 pages, $29.95, ISBN 2-89580-146-0 paper covers, with CD-ROM ISBN 2-89580-147-9) as put together by Stella Gardonio. There is also an advanced book, as well as help for other Microsoft and WordPerfect products, all at usually just $29.95. The spiral-bound book lies flat for readability while engaged with a computer. The CD-ROM has seven folders of files for the 206 (!) exercises. These you can transfer to a hard drive or diskettes, and then play around with them. Exercises are sorely lacking in regular computer manuals: how else to learn save by experience? The major topics here include how to use the Help package that comes with Word, managing files, creating a document, modifying a document, printing, formatting, moving and copying text, revising and proofreading. It gets tricky when you move on to creating and formatting tables. This is an excellent guide. It is useful, clear, logical, and inexpensive.

At the other extreme, but only on the price spectrum, is Internet & World Wide Web; how to program, 3rd ed. (Prentice Hall, 2004, 1535 pages paper covers, ISBN 0-13-145091-3, $118.95, with an accompanying CD-ROM) by the team of H.M. Deitel, P.J. Deitel and A.B. Goldberg. They have written other texts on Java, C++, .NET. They are international corporate trainers, so they can make it all seem so easy. This book is meant for students with little or no programming experience, for Web-based applications and object technologies. Absolutely essential if you are to forge ahead with your own Web site. The authors cover the fundamentals of markup languages (HTML, XHTML, XML), scripting languages (JavaScript, ColdFusion, Perl and CGI, Python, and others), Web servers (IIS, Apache), and relational databases (SQL). Other fundamentals are given for Web page authoring, ActiveX, security, multimedia speech synthesis, and cascading style sheets (CSS). Case studies illustrate such topics as how to build an online message board or how to build a video game. They give hundreds of examples, most with screen shots. There are extensive exercises, some with answers, in this self-guided tour. Scattered throughout are hundreds of tips on performance, portability, error-prevention, and programming errors. The CD-ROM has plug-ins (e.g. Adobe acrobat) plus 30-day trial versions of Macromedia stuff, Microsoft Agent, and the like. Each chapter concludes with a listing of Web resources for further reading. There are plenty of appendices with character sets, number systems, codes and columns. Since the second edition, the authors have added new material on ColdFusion, Dreamweaver, and Flash. There is also extra information at www.deitel.com and www.prenhall.com/deitel along with free newsletters, Web sites for their other books, and (pay for) training courses via E-mail. There is something here for any journalist involved with the Internet.

And for the minimalist, there is the basic The Basics; a rhetoric and handbook (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2004, spiral bound, ISBN 0-07-249198-1, $2 at Amazon.ca) by Santi V. Buscemi. It is touted as a clear non-technical discussion of grammar, along with other aspects of the writing process (including research). It too has exercises which have been integrated with the topics, one of the few brief handbooks with exercises for self-teaching (shelf-help). Useful for upper high school students and college attendees as well, and an inexpensive refresher for working journalists and editors.

Dean Tudor, Wine Writer and Professor Emeritus of Journalism, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada www.ryerson.ca/~dtudor


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