November / December 2003  Volume 29, Issue 8
ABA Law Pracice Management Magazine, November/December 2003 Issue
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Beating Information Overload with News Aggregators
Dennis M. Kennedy
Lawyers are in the information business. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a tool that allowed us to handle more information and at the same time obtain better-quality information? Well, we’ve got it.

We all have our routines for getting our daily doses of information. We check our e-mail for messages and newsletters. We visit our favorite Web sites. We tune in to electronic discussion groups. We might read a couple of newspapers. Then the snail mail hits the office, bringing magazines, brochures, advance sheets and a host of other information sources. And all of it is overwhelming.

“Information overload” is no longer a catchphrase. It has become an illness that leaves us feeling engulfed and falling farther behind with each new day.

It’s rather a paradox. The amount of information we now handle on a daily basis has grown dramatically—but the amount of control we have over that information seems to have decreased exponentially. Is there any way out? Yes.
I’ve found a solution that really works: using news aggregators and news feeds. The same tools can work for you.

Pushed Over the Edge? Getting Fed Instead
First, let’s start with a little history. Some of you might remember back to a short period in the late 1990s when “push” technology was the hottest tech trend going. The idea was that rather than going out to the Internet to “pull” in information, we could have information “pushed” directly to our desktops. As it turned out, push was not ready for prime time. However, the central idea behind the technology continued to be attractive—in essence, that it’s better to receive some information automatically, especially updates and news items, than to search for it yourself.

For the most part, information distribution by e-mail has since filled the role expected for push technology. Savvy e-mail users, for example, subscribe to relevant e-newsletters and have colleagues who send them pertinent materials off the Internet. Unfortunately, though, the sheer volume of incoming messages, and the potential dangers of opening attachments, drastically reduces the effectiveness of e-mail for these purposes. It’s difficult to find the relevant material in your inbox.

At the same time, it has become harder to keep up with all the information available on the Internet. When you do find a valuable site, it takes work to keep up with developments you want to follow. You have to make an ongoing effort to regularly visit each page.

Enter news feeds and news aggregators. Basically, a news aggregator is a software program that automatically retrieves news feeds from Web pages that supply those feeds. News feeds come in a number of standard formats and are relatively simple items of code that (1) can be retrieved and read by news aggregators and (2) may contain headlines, summaries, excerpts, full text of articles, links and even images. That’s all you really need to know about the underlying technology to use it. What you want to know, instead, is how the technology can help you better do what you do every day.
What, then, are the benefits of news aggregators and news feeds?

  • You don’t have to visit each source site individually. Once you find a site with a feed and “subscribe” to the feed via your aggregator, you get your information without taking affirmative steps to visit the site.
  • You can review new information from a large number of sites in a short time.
  • You can sort your feeds into groups categorized by subject.
  • You can add and delete feeds easily.
  • Because you receive information via feeds in a highly useful manner, you can deal with the information quickly and efficiently.

That last point captures the essential usefulness of news aggregators, especially for lawyers: We can take on and handle more information while simultaneously improving the quality and relevance of the information we receive.

Using the Technology: Five Steps with Ease
With respect to new information, we ideally want to do several things—each of which we can easily do with news aggregator tools:

  1. Know that the information is there (via an Alert).
  2. Quickly determine what it is (via a Headline).
  3. Quickly scan or get the gist of the information (via an Excerpt or Summary).
  4. Read the full article if we are interested (via Full Text).
  5. Deal with the information, typically by acting on it, moving on it, deleting it or filing it (via Action Steps).

To illustrate, let’s take a walk through how one typically uses a news aggregator.

In my news aggregator (FeedDemon 1.0), I have a number of subject matter folders. In each folder are the feeds, sometimes called “channels,” that I’ve affirmatively added to my list of feeds. When my aggregator updates, either on launch or when I manually trigger it, the left column displays a highlighted feed and the number of new items sent out by that feed. When I click on that feed, the middle column displays the feed headlines, with the unread ones in bold. When I click on a headline, the right column shows a summary provided by the author of the feed, a short excerpt or the full item, in each case with a hyperlink to the page on the site providing the feed on which the item is located. (See Figure 1.)

In short, within a matter of seconds per item, I see (1) the Alert, (2) the Headline and (3) the Excerpt or Summary and can either see or quickly jump to (4) the Full Text. (See Figure 2.) I also have the ready tools to perform (5) the Action Steps in an efficient manner.

As a result, I have a great deal of control over the information I receive because I can “triage” it very quickly, then move on or go deeper easily and efficiently. If the headline doesn’t affect me, I move on. If it interests me, I look at the summary or excerpt. If the summary interests me, I look at the full text. Then I act on it—bookmark it, delete it, forward it to a colleague, whatever is needed. All five of the ideal steps to new information are accomplished with ease.

We now have access to a rich information environment that brings material to us on a regular basis in a manner we can work with—advantages not so easily achieved with e-mail newsletters, Web pages and other approaches. But what information can you really get through news aggregators?

You can get feeds from newspapers, magazines, news networks, headline services and a wide variety of content sources, including weblogs, or blogs. News feeds, in fact, play a major role in the world of blogs and some of the best feeds come from them. (To learn how news readers’ underlying technology developed in conjunction with weblogs, and how it facilities posting to and reading of weblogs, see Rick Klau’s nothing.but.net column “News Readers: Feed Your Mind,” in the October 2003 Law Practice Management.)

All together, there are now hundreds of law-related feeds. And I will tell you that you can realistically manage several hundred feeds in less than half an hour in the morning.

Coming to the Table: A Taste of What You Get
So, would you like to monitor a dozen of the world’s newspapers on a daily basis? Want to track headlines for your favorite subjects of interest? Want to be more up-to-date, spot trends, see what some of the leading thinkers on a variety of topics are writing and learn of new developments quickly and easily? Here’s how you can get started.

There are two Web sites that aggregate news feeds from legal blogs: Detod.com, at http://my.detod.com, and the Daily Whirl, at www.dailywhirl.com. (See Figure 3.) Take a look at them to see what’s out there and whether it piques your interest. Note, however, that both sites only show headlines and do not accurately reflect the full news aggregator experience.

Next, check out a news aggregator application. There are a number of them, and new ones appear regularly. I suggest trying NewzCrawler, www.newzcrawler.com; FeedDemon, www.bradsoft.com/feeddemon (which is still in beta testing as of this writing); or NewsGator, www.newsgator .com, which actually plugs into and becomes part of Outlook. (See Figure 4.) A free trial version is available, with the purchase price at $29.95.

When you install your news aggregator program, you’ll see that it comes with a number of preconfigured feeds. You will, of course, want to add your own. There are various tricks and resources for locating feeds, which you’ll gradually learn as you go. However, a good starting point is to look on your favorite Web sites for an orange rectangular button that says “XML,” the phrase “Syndicate this site” or something similar that indicates a news feed, an XML feed, an RSS feed or an RDF feed.

Click on that link. You’ll be taken to a page of code that is all but incomprehensible. That’s okay because all you want is the URL. Copy the URL and go to your news aggregator and follow the steps for adding a new feed or channel, pasting the URL into the appropriate blank. (See Figure 5.) In some cases, an aggregator may pick up the feed automatically.

From that point on, when your aggregator updates you will get fresh headlines and material from that feed, which will appear in a convenient place with the other feeds you monitor.

Change Is a Very Good Thing
For years I’d looked for a tool that would keep me better informed and more in control of the tidal wave of information I receive. I knew the world had changed the first morning that I checked my news aggregator before I checked my e-mail box. My news aggregator has dramatically changed the way I deal with information, especially developments that affect my practice, in a manner that is extremely positive and productive. You, too, should seriously consider taking a test drive with these new tools. They will help you where you need it on a daily basis and give you a greater sense of control—and that’s something all of us can use.


Dennis M. Kennedy ( dmk@denniskennedy.com) is a computer lawyer and consultant based in St. Louis, MO. His Web site at www.denniskennedy.com is the home of many legal technology resources and his blog.

 FIGURE 1: FeedDemon in standard view, showing the feed channels within a subject matter folder. Clicking on a headline shows a summary provided by the author of the feed, a short excerpt or the full item.
 FIGURE 2: Full-text post in FeedDemon. You can quickly jump to full-text items and then bookmark them, forward them or take other action steps.
 FIGURE 3: The Daily Whirl, a legal blog aggregator with headlines from scores of law-related information sites.

FIGURE 4: NewsGator, a news aggregator that plugs into and becomes part of MS Outlook.
 FIGURE 5: Adding a new channel. Copying a feed’s URL and pasting it into your aggregator adds the site to your list of feeds.

 

A SAMPLING OF NEWS FEEDS