The invention of the Web browser added pictures to the Internet, but all those images still haven't made reading online a pleasant experience. If you're someone who uses the Web as your main source of news, you probably have 60 bookmarks that you never use, or you open 30 browser windows simultaneously to keep track of the articles you want to read—but you never get around to all of them. Never mind the killjoy, even on a fast connection, of waiting for some Web pages to load. Surfing within one well-designed site isn't so bad, but when you hop from site to site, there's nothing that replicates the appeal of scanning your local magazine rack or that pile of magazines splayed across your coffee table.
But there's a way to keep track of the New York Times, the Washington Post, Talkingpointsmemo.com, Wonkette—most major newspapers and nearly all blogs—in a lightweight, speed-readable format that lets you scan dozens, even hundreds, of fresh headlines a day without the time-wasting tedium of opening one Web site after another. All you need to do is download and install an RSS reader, which is no harder than installing Netscape's browser was in 1994. You can then scroll through cleanly organized headlines and story summaries. The result is an executive summary of what's new on the Net today. When you see a story you want to read, you click on it. One screenshot is worth a thousand words: Click hereto see an RSS reader in action.
RSS ("Really Simple Syndication" or "Rich Site Summary," depending on whom you ask) has three distinct advantages over Web browsing and e-mail, the two most popular ways to read news online. First, no ads or graphics clutter the headlines and article summaries. True, most news sites make you click through to the full Web page to read the whole story, but scanning an RSS reader is still more efficient than looking at, say, the front page of the New York Times online. And bloggers, who don't depend on ads for survival, usually stuff their entire posts into RSS.
Second, an RSS reader automatically updates itself with the latest items from the sites you tell it to watch, so it's always fresh. You don't have to hop from site to site, or constantly click "refresh," to know what's been published by the sites you frequent most. Lastly, you can include customized RSS "feeds" that cull material from multiple news sources into a single data stream. For example, John Kerry's staff provides an RSS feed on his blog to funnel the latest coverage and endorsements to RSS-using supporters.
How do you get started? The first step is to install an RSS reader (also known, somewhat clumsily, as an "RSS aggregator").For PC users, my techie friends and the editors at PC World recommend SharpReader. It's free, although the developer welcomes donations from happy users. If you get error messages when you try to start it (such as, "The application failed to initialize properly" or, "The dynamic library mscoree.dll could not be found"), go to the Windows Update site. There, find and install the Microsoft.NET Framework. Reboot, and you should be able to launch SharpReader. (I'm on a Mac, so I use Shrook.)
Once you've installed a reader, go back to your browser and open your favorite site. Most sites have a link that says "RSS" or an orange button that says "XML." Some sites have multiple links, one for each section of the publication. Cut and paste these URLs into your reader to read the site in RSS. Sorry, there's no one-click or "click here" method for this yet. After a few seconds, a list of headlines should appear. Click on SharpReader's "Subscribe" button if you want to add the feed to your reading list.
There is a neat shortcut that often works in lieu of the above mouse dance. Just type the site's main URL into SharpReader's URL window (e.g., "www.wonkette.com"). SharpReader will go to the site and look for an RSS feed for you. If it finds one, it will automatically load it. I find this trick usually works with blogs but not with newspaper sites.
One nuisance is that some sites, including the New York Times, don't list their feeds on their home pages, even though the Times provides feeds for nearly 20 sections. Even more confusing, some newspapers' feeds are only available through a third-party site such as NewsIsFree, which can prove impossible to search. To find those feeds, use the Syndic8 search engine. (The search box is hard to find; it's halfway down the site's home page, on the left.) If your favorite site doesn't have an RSS feed, odds are it will soon: Slate launched its feed today, and Amazon just added RSS feeds to let shoppers speed-browse its inventory.
To make RSS live up to its "really simple" moniker, I've compiled the feeds for some favorite reads—everything from Slate to the "Today's Papers" newspapers to some major blogs—on this page. Just right-click on the link, save it to your desktop, then import the file to your RSS reader. To do that in SharpReader, click File, then Import Subscriptions.
Most RSS programs have a Preferences option that lets you tell the program how often to check sites for updates. Once you've subscribed to a feed, SharpReader will update it every hour. You can fiddle with the Preferences menu to speed that up to as little as 15 minutes.