It Was a Good Idea for the AFP to Turn Off RSS

How many of the top 100 American newspapers use RSS? If you guessed “all of them,” you’d be right. According to the 2008 Bivings Report, which looked at use of the Internet by America’s largest 100 newspapers, every single one used RSS. And there are plenty of good reasons why using RSS is a very good idea.

So if every major newspaper in America is using RSS (and I’d guess most major papers worldwide that have a modern web presence do as well), why would the Agence France-Presse (AFP), one of the world’s three largest news agencies, decide to nix RSS feeds on their homepage?

There was no press release or official statement about the decision to pull RSS support from AFP.com, just confirmation that the AFP had indeed shut off its RSS feeds via a high level employee speaking to the NewsCred blog. However, this seemingly protectionist, walled garden tactic is not new for the AFP. In 2005 the news wire sued Google for linking to its stories using a headline and short excerpt. The AFP said that Google was using content without permission and infringing upon its copyrights.

It would appear that the suit was less about protecting copyrights and more about trying to land a big new client; a couple of years later the AFP settled with Google by roping them into a syndication deal. In the long run, suing Google actually worked for the AFP — they probably make more money licensing their content than they do when Google sends them traffic to AFP.com.

When I started writing this post, I planned to argue that turning off RSS wouldn’t have the same positive long term effect that suing Google ended up having. However, after writing it out, I’m starting to come around. First, here’s why RSS makes sense for most content publishers:

Why RSS Is Good For Users

  • It’s a lot easier to read multiple publications on a more regular basis when they’re delivered to you.
  • Data and content delivered by RSS can be mashed up in a new and interesting ways that reveal previously unnoticed or inaccessible conclusions.

Why RSS Is Good For Publishers

  • Because RSS makes it easier for people to track multliple sources, casual readers who would likely only read your publication once in awhile or not visit at all will be more apt to become regular readers.
  • RSS enables mashups that expose your content in new and interesting ways, and will ultimately drive more traffic, readers, and brand recognition.

However, the AFP is in a different situation than most content publishers. They’re not in the business of selling their brand to consumers — they sell content to companies that sell to consumers. Because the AFP has paid syndication clients, full RSS feeds are out of the question — they’d put the AFP in direct competition with clients, and they’d force the company to utilize staff to monitor and track down unauthorized uses of their RSS feed, which would be an unnecessary cost.

The AFP is in the business of providing content to publishers that then offer it to consumers and mashup developers via RSS (such as those top 100 newspapers). AFP content is already available via RSS from AFP clients. Offering it free on their site is detrimental to their business and creates problems for their paying clients.

It may seem like I’m arguing in favor of walled gardens — I’m not, though. I would sincerely hope that the AFP offers licenses to clients that allow them to republish content via RSS, including full text feeds — and then allows that content to be remixed down the line in any way possible. However, for the AFP itself, public RSS feeds are not necessary and actually don’t make much sense given the business they’re in.

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