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March 14, 2013

Google kills off its most useful tool for journalists. Why?

By Jon Bernstein

In less than four months Google Reader will be no more. The RSS feed reader that allows you to view, scan and read everything from your key news sources – all in one place – is being retired because, says the company, fewer and fewer people are using it. In a blog post published on Wednesday Urs Hölzle, Google's senior vice president of technical infrastructure no less, wrote:

We launched Google Reader in 2005 in an effort to make it easy for people to discover and keep tabs on their favorite websites. While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined. 

Which rather misses the point. First, as Om Malik points out over on PaidContent, there’s a direct link between that decline in usage and a lack of marketing and development investment. Here correlation really does equal causation.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, an RSS reader was never meant to be mainstream in the way that, say, email is.

It is, instead, a niche product with enormous impact. It is niche, in part, because it requires (a little) technical nous – and explaining its application to a non-user is not the easiest thing to do. Unless, your non-user needs quick access to multiple sources in near real-time. Like a journalist, for instance.

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RSS readers are used by what might be termed grandly as opinion formers or, at least, those who reach an audience. Like a journalist, for instance.

Name another technology that allows you to cover so much ground in one place. Social news readers – like Flipboard or Google’s own Currents – come close but these are built around the publication not the time frame. RSS readers do both.

Twitter can be fabulously useful but more to gauge the buzz, rather than for completeness. Or to borrow the words of Adam Tinworth:

Twitter is where I go to find out what's happening. My RSS reader is where I go to become informed.

As is invariably the case when it comes to technology these tools co-exist, they trade on their strengths and get used in tandem. Soon there will be one fewer out there.

Of course, there is no shortage of alternative feed readers –  the Online Journalism Blog is crowdsourcing people’s favourties right now. But that doesn’t stop this being a puzzling move from the normally sure-footed Google.


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