Feeding the news appetite with RSS

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post (and comments).

Every day, Alex Dai, one of my full time employees, spends about an hour an a half looking for stories for the next day’s news feeds. He needs to find about 14 to 15 potential story ideas, based on local newspapers, press releases, government announcements, and similar sources. Then he sends them to Chicago for the editors there to pick six (more or less).

Sure, we get some news when companies send press releases directly to us. As CardLine Asia-Pacific gets more and more well-known, this happens more often. But, for the most part, we scour local newspapers in the countries that we cover. Google News is the tool of choice.

So, Alex sits down and types in “China payments” into Google News. Then “Australia payments” then “New Zealand payments” and so on through the whole list of countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Then “China ATM” and “China credit card” and “China bank.” We also cover e-payments, remittances, debit cards — that’s a lot of key word searches.

No wonder it takes a while.

Today, to systematize the process, we’re switching to using RSS fees to do the same thing.

Our new assignment editor, Christian Klaus, set up a Bloglines account. That’s currently the best RSS reader on the market, though Google Reader is catching up. Both are free.

Then he goes to the Google News page and searches for, say, “China ATM.” After the results of the search come up, he clicks on the “RSS” button on the left-hand side of the screen. (Or just right-clicks it and copies the address.)

Now back to Bloglines, where he clicks the “Add” button to add the Google News feed and pastes in the address of the Google News RSS page for that particular search result.

Now, whenever he wants, he checks in with Bloglines, where all the new headlines that Google News has found that fit with any of his searches will pop up automatically – and the ones he’s already looked at will go away.

I’ve been using RSS feeds for years now – I never go to WSJ.com or NYTIMES.com anymore. I just subscribe to their news feeds. I also subscribe to Reuters feeds, and to Computerworld feeds, and to the feeds from blogs such as this one. (And, since I’m vain, I also subscribe to this particular blog as well.)

We’re estimating that using the Bloglines reader will cut the daily 90-minute job to just 20 to 30 minutes. In addition, we’ll be able to check the less popular countries that we tend to overlook. For example, Kyrgyzstan rarely has any credit card news, so we hardly ever do the full Google News search on it. It’s just not worth the time. But it is within our coverage area — now we just do the Google News search once, and store it in Bloglines. We’ll be notified if any news ever comes out of the country.

Here in Shanghai, we recently had a discussion about starting up a group blog for the Foreign Correspondents Club — and discovered that pretty much nobody except Fons (and me) actually uses RSS readers. He calls it the “other digital divide.”

I’m often surprised by how behind the technology curve journalists are. For example, nobody I know uses a relational database to track their workflow even though that’s pretty much the only way (barring doing corporate writing, books, or TV) that a freelance business journalist can make a six-figure income.

In the book Six-Figure Freelancing, author Kelly James-Enger interviewed successful freelance writers and found that all of them had some kind of similar system. Some had actually hired database programmers to build one for them, or had jury-rigged one out of systems available on the market.

I was a relational database designer in a previous life, so I’ve had my own workflow database for more than a decade now, first on the Filemaker platform. About a year ago I moved it to the online database Dabble DB, which has a low monthly charge but allows all my employees to sign in from wherever they are. There’s also a slightly less user-friendly — but free – alternative from Zoho Creator if you just have one user.

Every other industry has tools that they use to become more productive and efficient, and this helps to increase earnings.

Why don’t more freelance writers take advantage of the tools that are available to increase their productivity and earnings?

Signing off in Shanghai,