Apple News, RSS, or Both?

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

The News Quandary

In June, Apple unveiled its News app, which pulls together news from around the web and lets you read it all in one place, like an RSS reader. Unlike traditional RSS services, though, News can get an idea of what sources and topics interest you, then pull articles from everywhere that it thinks relate to the things you like. It's a curated news service, rather than the simple pipe of RSS feeds. In other words, instead of getting every article published by sources you follow, News gives you interesting articles from a wide array of sources.

This approach has a lot of advantages over RSS, but it also has its downsides. Unfortunately, many of us have to choose one or the other; there simply isn't enough time in a day to keep up with high-traffic RSS feeds and Apple News. As you try to figure out what to do, consider the following.

The Good

Apple News isn't bound to specific feeds. It might see that you liked a science story on CNN, so it will serve you more science stories from sources you otherwise wouldn't follow, such as Slate or Wired. It won't give you every story from those sites, only the ones it thinks will interest you. This curation is a great feature; you get to read articles you would otherwise have missed, and your horizons get expanded as topics similar to, but not quite the same as, what you like get pulled into your list of stories. Likewise, you will see few to no articles from sources you like that don't interest you. For instance, you might get science articles from Wired, but none of the pop culture pieces. With RSS, following a feed means you get everything, no matter what.

The way Apple News works also lets you cut down on the stories you don't care about. I follow several high-volume RSS feeds, and I find myself skipping past many of the articles that arrive in my RSS readers. Apple's News app works differently, feeding me what it thinks I might like. This not only delivers less overall traffic, it means I skip less articles. Best of all, the more I read and "like" the items offered by the app, the better Apple News learns my interests, and the better that list will get. RSS is, as I mentioned before, just a pipe for anything and everything put out by a given feed. Apple News, on the other hand, has a complex filtration system built into that pipe, delivering only the content I might actually care to read. The filter even listens to my input and adapts over time.

News is also easier to add to than RSS on iOS. On a website that supports News (such as this very one), just tap the Share button in Safari while browsing the site. You'll see an option to "add to News", which will let yo do exactly that. With RSS, you have to locate the RSS feed link, copy it, open your RSS app of choice, add a feed, and paste the URL. Doable, certainly, but not nearly as convenient.

This point is more subjective, but I feel it worth mentioning all the same. The way I manage my RSS feeds, I feel like I have to get through them all, until the badge on whatever app I'm using goes away. I hate to just delete a bunch of stories without at least looking at the titles, which I realize is something not everyone will understand. I mention it because Apple News has no badge, and feels more like you're checking in to see what's going on. If I miss a few days, I open News, see what's new and interesting, and that's it. I no longer have the feeling that there's a huge backlog of articles I have to go through. Again, this is very subjective--people look at and use RSS apps differently, and many won't understand my perspective. For those who do get where I'm coming from, though, know that News imposes less "pressure" than RSS, in my mind at least.

The Bad

Apple News' greatest strength--the filter in the pipe--can also be its greatest weakness. What happens if you miss interesting or important stories because News didn't think you'd care to read them? What if there's a whole range of topics and sources out there you'll never discover, thanks to your filter having been tweaked in just the wrong way? With RSS, you get a lot of information, but the filtering is all done by you. You'll never miss anything, because you're reading all the headlines, not just the ones a computer thinks you'll enjoy.

Another problem with Apple News is that it's something sites have to opt into and actively support. Doing so isn't hard, but it does take some effort. Small blogs, and even some news sources, may not currently--or ever--be onboard. If your local newspaper or favorite blog isn't on Apple News, then you'll never get stories from then in your News feed at all. RSS is far easier for web authors to handle, and normally comes automatically set up for blogs and websites nowadays. That means that, instead of actively supporting a specific news service from a specific company (Apple), authors get RSS for free and need do nothing more than publish their content in the way they choose.

Speaking of publishing, News currently has some teething problems. These will likely be fixed before long, but they are worth mentioning. The service has trouble with updated content--it might display stories that a website has since deleted, or it might fail to show the updated version of a story that has been modified since its original publishing. It may also offer multiple versions of the same story if the publisher has renamed an article; News could show one version with the original name, then another with the new name. Fortunately, these seem to be mostly on Apple's end, meaning that they can probably be fixed without the need for any updates to iOS. Still, we have no idea when such a fix might come along, and until then, any site that publishes content it then updates may give you problems.

Another limitation of Apple News is its lack of platform support. As of right now, the app that comes with iOS9 is the only one out there. There's no Mac app, no web interface, and certainly no Windows or Android client. Instead of skimming through RSS feeds on whatever device you happen to have with you, using Apple News will limit you to the use of your iOS device, and that's it. Of course, this could change at any time, but for now we have no indication that it will. If you normally read news on your iThing anyway, this won't be a problem, but if you use any other device for the task, this limitation could prove to be a huge stumbling block for you.

On the topic of restrictions, News is currently limited to only a few countries. Apple plans to roll it out to more locations over the coming months, but the point remains that News is only available based on your region. RSS, on the other hand, is much more widespread and less restrictive.

Finally, News doesn't offer notifications. Some apps--RSS or otherwise--can notify you when big stories break, or when an ongoing story is updated with new information. As of right now, Apple's offering has no such feature, so you'll want to turn elsewhere for real-time notifications, if that's important to you.

Either Or, or Both And?

Using RSS can be overwhelming, especially if you like to keep up with several high-profile news outlets. Using Apple News, though, runs the risk of omitting important stories that you'll never know you missed. The decision is between too much information, but information you control, or letting computers and remote humans serve you less--but more focused and interesting--stories to read.

However, there is a way to use both, kind of. If you can accept that News is going to be your source for, well, news, then you might find it a relief to unsubscribe from all your RSS feeds. Sure, you may miss a story here and there, but overall, you could find you prefer having a more manageable and interesting list of articles to read. For any website not using Apple News, you can still rely on good old RSS. Checking both isn't really a hassle, given how much smaller your RSS feed list would be, and you can end up with the best of both worlds.

Personally, I've removed a few high-traffic RSS feeds, and am currently using the hybrid approach. My main source of news (lowercase) is News (uppercase), while my source for updates to non-News sources--such as personal blogs--is still RSS. I love being able to check RSS on my Mac or iPhone, and very much wish I could do the same for Apple News. That said, the News app is easy to use and very well made for VoiceOver, so it's not much of a hardship to be forced onto my phone to check out what's happening.

The big question for everyone who consumes news through RSS will be: lots of content you control, or less content you don't control as much but that is tailored to you? Only you can make the final decision. Of course, there's no requirement to switch to News--if you dislike it, simply shove the app into the same folder as all your other unused Apple apps, and forget all about it. That said, I recommend everyone gives it a shot, at least for a few days. You might be surprised at how much you come to like it. Remember, too, that some of the limitations I listed above can be dealt with by updates. Push notifications, regional availability, support for updated feeds, and even the algorithms doing the filtering can all be addressed by Apple as the News platform matures and expands. Similarly, news sources can choose to get onboard at any time, making it possible that the outlets you currently have to check through RSS will be available in News tomorrow.

What will you be doing? Dumping RSS and using Apple News, or tossing the News app in a corner and never touching it? Will you try to juggle both News and RSS, or dive into News and see how it works? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Submitted by Greg Wocher on Friday, September 18, 2015

I am going to try using news because I find myself just skipping over a lot of stories in the RSS feeds I watch anyways. One problem I am noticing is that when I add a feed to my favorites in the news app I don't seem to be getting the most recent posts. For example, I have AppleVis in my favorites and the newest article it shows is the one on iTunes 12.3. Is there a way to fix this so I can see more recent articles in my favorites?

Greg Wocher

Submitted by Amir on Friday, September 18, 2015

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Very interesting article!
The way I look at the situation is that the News app has been designed with casual users of news in mind. As such, if you're really into news, it's difficult to imagine how one can add a certain channel to Apple News and miss many or most of its posts. I've tried adding several topics such as "Iran" or "nuclear agreement" to Apple News, but it provides me with very few posts and most of them aren't up-to-date either. Moreover, if I add, say, NPR or CNN to Apple News, I can't decide which branch or subsection of those I want in my feed. Consequently it's not surprising that I still use and depend on my beloved "lire Full-text RSS Reader" when it comes to reading and digesting news.

Submitted by smhy on Friday, October 2, 2015

I'm a hybrid user. I totally understand the dynamic of being addicted to news browsing and also having the masses of unread items in my RSS reader stress me out to no end. News is helping with this. I have deleted some of my RSS feeds that I don't really read, but keep them around because, as mentioned, I have a compulsive need to read the entire internet. I replaced those feeds with News feeds, and I feel much better about them because I only get a select number of articles and, because I don't need to empty the feeds or anything, I feel no need to look at every headline.
Also, you can actually subscribe to the feeds of individual publications on News. It's not all just topic-based.
Also also, another downside to News is it seems like you have to be connected to the internet to use it. So no offline reading convenience like with Lire, Newsify, etc.

Submitted by Michael Hansen on Friday, October 2, 2015

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

First, it's wonderful that News is accessible and that users have options. While I've concluded that News is not for me, accessibility was happily not one of the deciding factors.

For me, the issues with News are:

  • You can't import your RSS feeds from an OPML file and have to re-add everything from scratch. While this is a non-issue for someone just getting started reading news on an iOS device, it's a deal-breaker for me--as I have lots of feeds, and re-adding all of them would be tedious at best.
  • Not every publication is available on Apple News, whereas just about every modern website has an RSS feed. I don't have time, or the desire, to try and figure out what's available on Apple News and what isn't...I want something that I know will work every time.
  • When compared to full-text options like Newsify or Lire, article formatting in Apple News leaves some to be desired. For example, with full-text RSS readers, you just get the text of articles with most everything else stripped out. When reading RSS feeds in Apple News, the text appears to be seen by VoiceOver as one single element, meaning that you hear the entire article at once rather than being able to swipe through line by line. I wouldn't consider this an accessibility issue per say, as articles in Apple's News format work just fine. It also wouldn't have changed my mind about whether News was the right solution for me.

If Apple introduces the ability to import an OPML file of RSS feeds, I might give News another try. Regardless, it's great that we can even have this discussion and that Apple has made News a very accessible option for VoiceOver users.

I really do think that having an entire article as one huge block of text is an accessibility problem. It makes reading a ridiculous process of either swiping line-by-line or turning on airplane mode so that notifications don't mean you have to start the whole article over. But I should also note that not all publications have text inputted in that way in the News app. Some do have real, accessible text broken up by paragraph. So apparently, Apple is letting those publications choose how to input their text. Here's to better accessibility guidelines in future.

Submitted by Marc on Monday, April 4, 2016

When using News on my iPhone, I like to swipe right through the article headlines and then swipe up to save them for later reading. Would it be possible to read the saved articles on an application on my Mac? Thanks for any feedback.