How the NY Times came to support RSS

The history of RSS is usually told only in one dimension, it’s the story of geeks fighting with geeks, so they say, but in my humble opinion, that’s really not the story.

Most of the vocal people on the mail lists, blogs and wikis are more fans than creators. It’s as if we confused baseball players with people who sit in the stands watching a baseball game. Sure, both wear caps and want their team to win, but one actually does something about it, while the others expresses an opinion. There are a lot of fans, but relatively few people who actually do anything.

Mike Lopez, posting on this blog yesterday recalls a story he heard on NPR about basketball great Wilt Chamberlain and his relationship with fans. Chamberlain’s philosophy: it’s easier to humor them than to argue with them.

Analogously, in the age of Wikipedia, fans can give themselves credit not just for being there when Wilt had his amazing 100 point game, but they can actually claim to have had the 100 point game themselves. Welcome to the Internet. Community participation is both its strongest and weakest point. And those who say I’m a consistent supporter of the medium miss that I am as frequently its victim. Sadly. :-(

Anyway, the NY Times is not a sideline player in the history of RSS, as I’ve written before, they played a central role, first denying us permission to use their content, then allowing it, and in doing so, providing an example for the rest of the publishing industry, which followed their lead without undermining them, without reinventing the technology, to their credit.

It was on this day in 2001 that I received a call from a “Rights and Contracts manager” at the New York Times, she asked us to stop reading their XML newsfeeds. I complied with the request. A colleague who will remain nameless had snuck me a link to an unprotected directory where the feeds, in a proprietary XML-based format, resided. I then repurposed the information and published it on a UserLand server. Truth be told, I expected to be shut down, but in doing so, I also expected to get the attention of higher-ups at the Times (who I knew read my blog) and it surely did.

Then early in 2002, I had a dinner with Martin Nisenholtz and Times board member Dave Liddle and two San Francisco-based Times reporters, where I pitched them on two things: 1. Publish in RSS, and 2. Give blogs to every Times reporter. They took me up on #1 and in April we published the Times content, but not in RSS (although we were permitted to by our contract), instead using the Times’s proprietary format. Why did we do that? Well I figured that if we pubished in RSS 0.92, which was then our most advanced format, it would drag the Times into a format war and they might think it’s not worth the trouble and ask us to stop publishing their content. So I decided to ease them into the community, first publishing invisibly to the people on the mail lists, and then, once their presence was cemented, we switched over to RSS 2.0.

So the loud and obnoxious fans on the mail lists shaped the story, a little. Instead of confronting their loudness, we side-stepped it. Now the Times may or may not be seen as the “tipping point” more widely, but I see it that way. Without the Times, we would have remained in disagreement, stuck in mail list hell, never achieving the promise of the technology. We all owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude, and should learn the lesson well, don’t look for leadership in standards to the netizens or to Silicon Valley, look to users who have a stake in making the technology work. Imho, that’s the key to getting things to move forward.

16 responses to this post.

  1. [...] Essay: How the NY Times came to support RSS.  [...]

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  2. If only the NYT could work it’s magic on getting every other newspaper to start putting out RSS. Certainly here in Britain, most of the newspapers still don’t get the Internet. The Guardian is the exception. My local newspaper deletes articles after a certain period, defeating the point of putting stuff online (and also meaning that I can’t just Google for a story but have to go to my local library and poke through old editions manually).

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  3. Posted by John Robb on February 9, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    It certainly was the tipping point for RSS. Glad to have been the point man in making that happen.

    In the process of working making the RSS happen, Jake and I almost got them to adopt reporter blogs with a sales pitch we did for Martin and his team in NYC. Unfortunately, they were still suffering from a hang over from ill advised acquisitions during the .com bubble. If they had taken us up on the reporter blogs, it would have been a tipping point for much more than RSS.

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  4. “Analogously… fans can give themselves credit not just for being there when Wilt had his amazing 100 point game, but they can actually claim to have had the 100 point game themselves.”

    This is true of any time, and any medium.

    The difference today is, it’s a lot more difficult to make such a claim credibly. There are now more resources, available to more people, to fact check such claims than ever before.

    This is a variation of the statement by my friend Tom Digby: “The easiest way to get information on the internet isn’t to ask a question. The easiest way is to post the wrong information, and then wait to be corrected.”

    And I hasten to add, you’re one of the most credible people to do some of the correcting, Dave. Which is part of why I edited the Wikipedia entry on “Unconference” very quickly after you’d made your criticisms. Those corrections have stuck.

    Imagine what happens when similar mistakes get made — and they do — in the print version of… well, anything, really, but let’s say the Britannica. How quickly would it take for such corrections to propagate? Years? Decades?

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  5. And as quickly as they get corrected, they get uncorrected.

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  6. Dave — my experience is, that with less contentious topics, corrections tend to “stick” more readily. It’s only when you have controversy that “edit wars” break out.

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  7. “And as quickly as they get corrected, they get uncorrected.”

    Sometimes, yes. But as d.w. points out, the question is, How frequently?

    Also, How is this different from any other medium, and any other publication? Mistakes get put back in to the historical record all the time (ask Richard III). Or they get bouced around the press (ask John Kerry, or Al Gore).

    Again, the only thing new here is the duration of the cycle. It’s a problem that cuts across all sources, and all times. (I suggest looking into the topic “historiography”.) I can understand the idea that Wikipedia throws these issues into sharper relief. But it’s not only not unique to Wikipedia, it’s an issue that’s a perennial among history scholars — Just which sources do you trust? Who really does have credibility? If the Byzantines tell you one thing, and the Turks another, which side do you fall upon?

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  8. DW and Hal, if you watch closely you’ll see that I often point to Wikipedia articles from Scripting News. I use judgement, if it looks like a battleground I don’t point. If it seems like a thoughtful piece I do.

    The problem is you simply don’t know when an article has been skewed by fans who camp out there. You may believe you know, but I know some that are (like the RSS page) which are utterly hopeless. And no I won’t edit it, not just for the pragmatic reason that I would immediatlely get switched back, but also for the ethical reason that I have no business writing the story of something I am part of.

    But I can tell you without any fear of being wrong that Tristan Louis had absolutely nothing to do with the invention of podcasting, but there is his name, permanenlty ensconced as the first person of podcasting. And Ben Hammersley may have said the word “podcasting” in an article he wrote, but he did not coin the term (why wasn’t he on the ipodder-dev list helping out when we needed a name). Again, nothing we can do about it, all the fact-correcting will never get the record straight on Wikipedia.

    We can only hope that something else comes along to solve this particular problem. And then we do need to have a way of telling which are the compromised pieces and which aren’t too bad.

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  9. Another thing — perhaps it’s my fallible memory, and if so, I apologize. But Dave, you’re very central in a great many things, and there are times when you’re one of very few people in the room who can tell the story. Take this piece, about the NY Times. How many people could tell the story?

    The problem here, as any historian (or any lawyer) would tell you, is that once the people in the room start disagreeing with what happened, it becomes really difficult for an outside observer to untangle. And as far as I can tell, this has been where some of the “controversy” has come in. (Mr. Curry comes to mind.)

    And that’s OK, but… how could anyone, in any medium, be able to sort that out without stepping on someone’s toes? But does that mean the stor(ies) shouldn’t be told at all?

    Here’s a West Wing analogy: I forget which episode, but I remember Leo telling Kate Harper (the NSC deputy) that she can promote her views to a point… But she’s, “not going to change history.” The thing is, as the episodes unfold, we see that Kate very much does change history.

    OK, so Leo publishes his memoirs, and Kate publishes hers. One now has to write a Britannica article, or a NY Times article on the Bartlet Administration. Which one do you cover? Either? Neither? Both?

    Or… Leo’s comes out first. Kate’s comes out years later. Now the Britannica is stuck with one version until a new press run, the Times has one version immortalized in its morgue…

    And Wikipedia?

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  10. Hal, that’s why I blog. But it doesn’t often make a difference. I have written the story, it’s all in the back issues of my blog. But the writers don’t read the accounts. You’re making it sound like people really work at history, my experience is they don’t.

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  11. Oh and to answer your question, if you’re going to do it right, you cover both and say this is what one says and this is what the other says, and you try to corroborate and triangulate. But ultimately you leave it to the reader to decide.

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  12. Dave, I think your overall message is spot on, but I’m somewhat confused by the baseball metaphor. My take is that you are comparing the mailing list and techno-whingers who do nothing to actually make things happen, with the fans at a baseball game and organisations like the NYT as the players. Wouldn’t one say that the fans at a game, by paying for the tickets, buying the hats and paying for the outrageously expensive and horribly watered down beer at the ballpark also making a valuable contribution? I suppose the better metaphor would have been the guy who TiVo’s the game, skips the commercials, doesn’t own the club hat and never goes to the actual stadium as more akin to the mailing list crowd. They want to have a parade and “be part of a winner” but they offer nothing of value and are usually the first to be negative about the team when things don’t go well.

    For me, the fans at the game in your analogy are the people who follow a new technology and simply use it but don’t have the ability to make the level of change that say the NYT does. In their own special way, those adopters play a pivotal role.

    Just my thoughts, but overall a good insight into the matter from someone who was there.

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  13. Sean, those are good thoughts, and you’re right of course.

    I was thinking of a drunk guy in the bleachers who throws crap on the field and studies the ball players personal lives so he can yell insults about player’s wife and children just to see if he can get a reaction.

    Most fans are very nice people, of course. :-)

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  14. Interestng posts dave, though I thought it zoomed out when you were talking about the Wikipedia and Chamberlain part, which did not really correspond much to the rest of the story.

    So, are you saying that you are indirectly responsible for the NYT’s RSS? :)

    Cheers then and yes NYT certainly influences the rest of the newspapers in the globe, no doubt there!

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  15. [...] 2/9/06: “Most of the vocal people on the mail lists, blogs and wikis are more fans than creators. It’s as if we confused baseball players with people who sit in the stands watching a baseball game. Sure, both wear caps and want their team to win, but one actually does something about it, while the others expresses an opinion.”  [...]

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  16. [...] Dave’s WordPress Blog tells of “How the NY Times came to support RSS”, which, in a way, became the driving force behind the birth of RSS. Anyway, the NY Times is not a sideline player in the history of RSS, as I’ve written before, they played a central role, first denying us permission to use their content, then allowing it, and in doing so, providing an example for the rest of the publishing industry, which followed their lead without undermining them, without reinventing the technology, to their credit. [...]

    Reply

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