For hardcore RSS users and journalists, a collective cry of anguish went up as Google decided to kill Reader. As New Zealand developer Aldo Cortesi put it, it wasn’t just the death of a single application but a serious blow to the RSS eco-system, an eco-system that he said was already “deeply ill“. The knock-on effects of the death of Google Reader are not trivial:
- Google Reader’s feeds became an almost de facto sync for lots of desktop, web and mobile RSS applications and without it that ability to sync will be broken.
- Google Reader also provided uncensored news access for people in countries that tightly control their citizen’s access to information, such as Iran.
- Whether intentionally or not, Google’s mere presence in the RSS space has depressed development of alternatives to Reader. Who wants to compete with Google?
Cortesi was very direct on the last point:
The truth is this: Google destroyed the RSS feed reader ecosystem with a subsidized product, stifling its competitors and killing innovation. It then neglected Google Reader itself for years, after it had effectively become the only player.
There are alternatives. I’ve used Feedly on and off for a while, and I still use NetNewsWire. I’m excited to hear that Feedly is working to allow people to easily migrate from Google Reader to its other sync services.
However, as the dust has settled since the announcement, I still haven’t found a drop-in replacement for Reader. As a journalist, Google Reader is essential to the work I do. As imperfect as Google Translate is, the ability to translate content easily from feeds in languages I didn’t speak was a god-send. It helped me keep up with developments in the Arabic, Chinese and Turkish markets that I simply wouldn’t have been able to without it. Sure, I can put things manually through Translate, but it’s all about efficiency.
Google Reader combined with Google Alerts (how long will that hang around I wonder) was another stunning way for me to discover new sources of information, especially as Google ripped out the sharing that once was a powerful social way to discover new information.
I’ll readily admit that I’m an edge case. RSS readers have never been a mainstream activity, but as a journalist, RSS was one way that I kept on top of the firehouse of information that I need to sift through as a modern information professional. In my work as not only a journalist but also as a digital media strategist, people ask me how I stay on top of all of the constant changes in the business. Although social and semantic news app Zite is the first thing I look at every morning, RSS and Google Reader have continued to play an essential role, and RSS, Google Reader or no Google Reader, will continue to be essential.
Google has had and then killed a number of extremely useful research tools for journalists, and Reader is just the latest. Search Timeline, which showed the frequency of a search term, was flawed but still extremely useful for research as a journalist. For journalists working with social media, the death of Realtime, Google’s social media search, was a terrible loss. No other tool has come even close to the functionality that Realtime offered. Topsy comes the closest, but it still lacks the incredible features that Realtime offered. Now, some of the death of Realtime was part of another company killing an eco-system, Twitter, but Google could have continued after the deal with Twitter fell apart. Google probably didn’t for the same reason it is killing Reader. The search giant wants to push Google+.
The death of Search Timeline, Realtime and now Reader all seem to be a pattern, loss of tools that were very important for journalistic research at the search company. I’m not saying my needs as a journalist are more important than the vast majority of other users of Google (although Suw notes that, as a consultant, she also relied on these tools and often recommended them to clients). My professional needs are quite particular. However, these tools were incredibly useful for research, and I don’t see any drop-in replacements.
My question to fellow journalists: How do we support the special web services that are valuable to us? How do we help create more resilient digital services that serve our special needs? I have some ideas, but that’s for another blog post.