News a la Carte: An Increasingly Popular Online Tool Lets Consumers Control Their Media Diet, Receiving Headlines and Summaries in a Single Location

Article excerpt

Recently one of my Tivo-enhanced friends mused that he has no idea when his favorite shows air on TV or what networks they're on. He likes to watch "The Apprentice" on Friday evenings with a group of friends, and that's all he needs to know.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This must be misery for a network executive whose strategy depends on promotion and scheduling--not to mention the well-known advertising headaches Tivo has wrought. Put the viewer in control? Outrageous.

Now imagine online news working like that. Instead of visiting one site at a time and selecting stories from strategically organized homepages, people could pick the content that interests them with very little thought about where it was published or what appeared next to it.

Using a technology called RSS, many news Web sites now offer that option. Depending on whom you ask, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary--and it promises to be the next truly big innovation in electronic publishing. RSS is a method of extruding information from a Web site and making it available as a feed that can be viewed in an RSS reader, also known as a news aggregator. Some news aggregators deliver feeds to your e-mail inbox; others are stand-alone programs that run on your computer, and others are customizable Web pages.

In any case, you'll receive a collection of headlines and summaries from your favorite Web sites in a single, uncluttered, advertising-free location. If you select a headline, you will be taken to its Web page and exposed to any ads or other messages on that page; the advantage of the RSS reader is that you can scan the headlines of dozens of sites before deciding to go anywhere. It's like reading TV Guide instead of channel surfing.

The technology has been around for a while but only recently bubbled into the mainstream. By late December, more than 150 newspapers in the U.S. offered RSS feeds. At this point, it's a must-have feature. Most sites signify their feeds with an orange button labeled either "XML" or "RSS." Large news sites generally offer several RSS feeds for their content, organized by topic or section (such as www.nytimes.com/services/xml/rss). Smaller news sites might offer one XML feed for the entire site.

Technophobes, be brave: RSS is as easy as managing e-mail or setting up bookmarks. If you're a news junkie who scans several different sites once or twice a day, this will change your life. To dab a toe in the water, set up a personal page with my. …