Merlin wants free full-text RSS feeds


And, I’ll look forward to seeing similar CMS bugs fixed by Macworld, The New York Times, and all the other excellent sites that fell out of my reader when their full-content feeds disappeared.

Full content in RSS is awesome. Free content in general is awesome. There’s just one trick. In the end, writers need to be paid.

As an editorial guy, I’ve advocated for freer approaches to RSS for a long time. But I’m also someone who works for a large-ish publishing company who is seeing a years-long shift toward online revenue from print revenue.

RSS doesn’t generate revenue directly. There are ads in RSS, sure, but they’re cheap and lousy and don’t have remotely the return as ads on web pages. The question is, if you publish all your content in RSS, does the resulting drop in traffic get offset by the fringe benefits? In the mind of some — presumably including Merlin Mann and John Gruber — you may lose a small percentage of tech-savvy people, but those people tend to be the ones who pass links around to friends and on their blogs and on Twitter, and a lot of those people will come to your web site from there, so in the end it’s a net benefit. Plus, more people will care about you and your brand and that’s a good thing.

I agree, that’s good. I wish someone could cite some studies that prove that giving away your full-text RSS doesn’t hurt traffic, but helps it. As for general good feelings toward the brand, it reminds me of people who block all the ads on our web site and then complain about what we write. We can’t keep our company in business based entirely on the goodwill of people who don’t give us money or see ads that make us money. Goodwill is fantastic, and connection between publishers and audiences is vital to the survival of those publishers. But no publisher can stay in business based on connections alone. Without money, the business can’t survive. So where does the money come from? It has to come from somewhere.

Nobody would like us to publish full-content RSS feeds more than I would. But I can’t figure out the math that allows us to do that without shooting ourselves in the head.

So I guess what I’m saying is, I understand what Merlin is saying on an idealistic level. Is full-text RSS the “right thing to do” on the Web in terms of usability and friendliness and the like? Absolutely. But if everyone started reading full-text RSS and stopped going to our web site, we’d go out of business. So I’ve got some concerns there.

(Side note: A lot of people view me as “Mr. Macworld,” but my job title is Editorial Director, not President, and I have no authority over the ad-sales or business departments of my company, though occasionally I have the power of persuasion on my side. I am one part of a large company, but I’m not the Big Boss.)

Back to the beginning: Full-content RSS feeds are awesome. Would you pay to get them, and to turn off all the ads on our web site, like Ars Technica? Maybe something like that is the solution to all this. I don’t know. All I know is, right now when I talk to the people on my company’s business side, and I mention putting all our content into RSS feeds, they look at me like I’m crazy.

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