How to follow the complete output of journalists and other writers?

In a digital era with a seemingly ever-decreasing number of larger news outlets paying journalists and other writers for their work, the number of working writers who find themselves working for one or more outlets is rapidly increasing. 

This is sure to leave journalists wondering how to better serve their own personal brand either when they leave a major publication for which they’ve long held an association (examples: Walt Mossberg leaving The New York Times or Leon Wieseltier leaving The New Republic)  or alternatively when they’re just starting out and writing for fifty publications and attempting to build a bigger personal following for their work which appears in many locations (examples include nearly everyone out there).

Increasingly I find myself doing insane things to try to follow the content of writers I love. The required gymnastics are increasingly complex to try to track writers across hundreds of different outlets and dozens of social media sites and other platforms (filtering out unwanted results is particularly irksome). One might think that in our current digital media society, it would be easy to find all the writing output of a professional writer like Ta-nehisi Coates, for example, in one centralized place.

I’m also far from the only one. In fact, I recently came across this note by Kevin:

I wish there was a way to subscribe to writers the same way you can use RSS. Obviously twitter gets you the closest, but usually a whole lot more than just the articles they’ve written. It would be awesome if every time Danny Chau or Wesley Morris published a piece I’d know.

The subsequent conversation in his comments or  on Micro.blog (a fairly digital savvy crowd) was less than heartening for further ideas.

As Kevin intimates, most writers and journalists are on Twitter because that’s where a lot of the attention is. But sadly Twitter can be a caustic and toxic place for many. It also means sifting through a lot of intermediary tweets to get to the few a week that are the actual work product articles that one wants to read. This also presumes that one’s favorite writer is on Twitter, still using Twitter, or hasn’t left because they feel it’s a time suck or because of abuse, threats, or other issues (examples: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lindy West, Sherman Alexie). 

What does the universe of potential solutions for this problem currently look like?

Potential Solutions

Aggregators

One might think that an aggregation platform like Muck Rack which is trying to get journalists to use their service and touts itself as “The easiest, unlimited way to build your portfolio, grow your following and quantify your impact—for free” might provide journalists the ability to easily import their content via RSS feeds and then provide those same feeds back out so that their readers/fans could subscribe to them easily. How exactly are they delivering on that promise to writers to “grow your following”?!

An illustrative example I’ve found on Muck Rack is Ryan O’Hanlon, a Los Angeles-based writer, who writes for  a variety of outlets including The Guardian, The New York Times, ESPN, BuzzFeed, ESPN Deportes, Salon, ESPN Brasil, FiveThirtyEight, The Ringer, and others. As of today they’ve got 410 of his articles archived and linked there. Sadly, there’s no way for a fan of his work to follow him there. Even if the site provided an RSS feed of titles and synopses that forced one to read his work on the original outlet, that would be a big win for readers, for Ryan, and for the outlets he’s writing for–not to mention a big win for Muck Rack and their promise.

I’m sure there have to be a dozen or so other aggregation sites like Muck Rack hiding out there doing something similar, but I’ve yet to find the real tool for which I’m looking. And if that tool exists, it’s poorly distributed and unlikely to help me for 80% of the writers I’m interested in following much less 5%.

Author Controlled Websites

Possibly the best choice for everyone involved would be for writers to have their own websites where they archive their own written work and provide a centralized portfolio for their fans and readers to follow them regardless of where they go or which outlet they’re writing for. They could keep their full pieces privately on the back end, but give titles, names of outlets, photos, and synopses on their sites with links back to the original as traditional blog posts. This pushes the eyeballs towards the outlets that are paying their bills while still allowing their fans to easily follow everything they’re writing. Best of all the writer could own and control it all from soup to nuts.

If I were a journalist doing this on the cheap and didn’t want it to become a timesuck, I’d probably spin up a simple WordPress website and use the excellent and well-documented PressForward project/plugin to completely archive and aggregate my published work, but use their awesome forwarding functionality so that those visiting the URLs of the individual pieces would be automatically redirected to the original outlet. This is a great benefit for writers many of whom know the pain of having written for outlets that have gone out of business, been bought out, or even completely disappeared from the web. 

Of course, from a website, it’s relatively easy to automatically cross-post your work to any number of other social platforms to notify the masses if necessary, but at least there is one canonical and centralized place to find a writer’s proverbial “meat and potatoes”. If you’re not doing something like this at a minimum, you’re just making it hard for your fans and failing at the very basics of building your own brand, which in part is to get even more readers. (Hint, the more readers and fans you’ve got, the more eyeballs you bring to the outlets you’re writing for, and in a market economy built on clicks, more eyeballs means more traffic, which means more money in the writer’s pocket. Since a portion of the web traffic would be going through an author’s website, they’ll have at least a proportional idea of how many eyeballs they’re pushing.)

I can’t help but point out that even some who have set up their own websites aren’t quite doing any of this right or even well. We can look back at Ryan O’Hanlon above with a website at https://www.ryanwohanlon.com/. Sadly he’s obviously let the domain registration lapse, and it has been taken over by a company selling shoes. We can compare this with the slight step up that Mssr. Coates has made by not only owning his own domain and having an informative website featuring his books, but alas there’s not even a link to his work for The Atlantic or any other writing anywhere else. Devastatingly his RSS feed isn’t linked, but if you manage to find it on his website, you’ll be less-than-enthralled by three posts of Lorem ipsum from 2017. Ugh! What has the world devolved to? (I can only suspect that his website is run by his publisher who cares about the book revenue and can’t be bothered to update his homepage with events that are now long past.)

Examples of some journalists/writers who are doing some interesting work, experimentation, or making an effort in this area include: Richard MacManus,  Marina Gerner, Dan Gillmor, Jay RosenBill Bennett, Jeff JarvisAram Zucker-Scharff, and Tim Harford

One of my favorite examples is John Naughton who writes a regular column for the Guardian. He has his own site where he posts links, quotes, what he’s reading, his commentary, and quotes of his long form writing elsewhere along with links to full pieces on those sites. I have no problem following some or all of his output there since his (WordPress-based) site has individual feeds for either small portions or all of it. (I’ve also written a short case study on Ms. Gerner’s site in the past as well.)

Newsletters

Before anyone says, “What about their newsletters?” I’ll admit that both O’Hanlon and Coates both have newsletters, but what’s to guarantee that they’re doing a better job of pushing all of their content though those outlets? Most of my experience with newsletters would indicate that’s definitely not the case with most writers, and again, not all writers are going to have newsletters, which seem to be the flavor-of-the month in terms of media distribution. What are we to do when newsletters are passé in 6 months? (If you don’t believe me, just recall the parable of all the magazines and writers that moved from their own websites or Tumblr to Medium.com.)

Tangential projects

I’m aware of some one-off tools that come close to the sort of notifications of writers’ work that might be leveraged or modified into a bigger tool or stand alone platform. Still, most of these are simple uni-taskers and only fix small portions of the overall problem.

Extra Extra

Savemy.News

Ben Walsh of the Los Angeles Times Data Desk has created a simple web interface at www.SaveMy.News that journalists can use to quickly archive their stories to the Internet Archive and WebCite. One can log into the service via Twitter and later download a .csv file with a running list of all their works with links to the archived copies. Adding on some functionality to add feeds and make them discoverable to a tool like this could be a boon.

Granary

Ryan Barrett has a fantastic open source tool called Granary that “Fetches and converts data between social networks, HTML and JSON with microformats2, ActivityStreams 1 and 2, AtomRSSJSON Feed, and more.” This could be a solid piece of a bigger process that pulls from multiple sources, converts them into a common format, and outputs them in a single subscribe-able location.

Splash page image and social logos from Granary.io

SubToMe

A big problem that has pushed us away from RSS and other formatted feed readers is providing an easy method of subscribing to content. Want to follow someone on Twitter? Just click a button and go. Wishing it were similar for a variety of feed types, Julien Genestoux‘s SubToMe has created a universal follow button that allows a one-click subscription option (with lots of flexibility and even bookmarklets) for following content feeds on the open web.

Splash image on SubToMe's home page

Others?

Have you seen any other writers/technologists who have solved this problem? Are there aggregation platforms that solve the problem in reverse? Small pieces that could be loosely joined into a better solution? What else am I missing?

How can we encourage more writers to take this work into their own hands to provide a cleaner solution for their audiences? Isn’t it in their own best interest to help their readers find their work?

I’ve curated portions of a journalism page on  IndieWeb wiki to include some useful examples, pointers, and resources that may help in solving portions of this problem. Other ideas and solutions are most welcome!

This post was originally published on Chris Aldrich

The web is my social network: My talk from WordCamp Riverside 2018

WordPress.tv has posted my talk from WordCamp Riverside 2018. If you missed it live, you can review it again now. The slides can be found here on my site.

https://videopress.com/v/yTTtNVh2
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The web is my social network

Growing toxicity on Twitter, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, algorithmic feeds, and a myriad of other problems have opened our eyes to the ever-growing costs of social media. Walled gardens have trapped us with the promise of “free” while addicting us to their products at the cost of our happiness, sense of self, sanity, and privacy. Can we take back our fractured online identities, data, and privacy to regain what we’ve lost?
I’ll talk about how I’ve used IndieWeb related technologies in conjunction with WordPress as a replacement for my social presence while still allowing easy interaction with friends, family, and colleagues online. I’ll show how everyone can easily use simple web standards to make WordPress a user-controlled, first-class social platform that works across domains and even other CMSs.
Let’s democratize social media using WordPress and the open web, the last social network you’ll ever need to join.

The web is my social network: My talk from WordCamp Riverside 2018 was originally published on Chris Aldrich

Domains 2019 Reflections from Afar

My OPML Domains Project

Not being able to attend Domains 2019 in person, I was bound and determined to attend as much of it as I could manage remotely. A lot of this revolved around following the hashtag for the conference, watching the Virtually Connecting sessions, interacting online, and starting to watch the archived videos after-the-fact. Even with all of this, for a while I had been meaning to flesh out my ability to follow the domains (aka websites) of other attendees and people in the space. Currently the easiest way (for me) to do this is via RSS with a feed reader, so I began collecting feeds of those from the Twitter list of Domains ’17 and Domains ’19 attendees as well as others in the education-related space who tweet about A Domain of One’s Own or IndieWeb. In some sense, I would be doing some additional aggregation work on expanding my blogroll, or, as I call it now, my following page since it’s much too large and diverse to fit into a sidebar on my website.

For some brief background, my following page is built on some old functionality in WordPress core that has since been hidden. I’m using the old Links Manager for collecting links and feeds of people, projects, groups, and institutions. This link manager creates standard OPML files, which WordPress can break up by categories, that can easily be imported/exported into most standard feed readers. Even better, some feed readers like Inoreader, support OPML subscriptions, so one could subscribe to my OPML file, and any time I update it in the future with new subscriptions, your feed reader would automatically update to follow those as well. I use this functionality in my own Inoreader account, so that any new subscriptions I add to my own site are simply synced to my feed reader without needing to be separately added or updated.

The best part of creating such a list and publishing it in a standard format is that you, dear reader, don’t need to spend the several hours I did to find, curate, and compile the list to recreate it for yourself, but you can now download it, modify it if necessary, and have a copy for yourself in just a few minutes. (Toward that end, I’m also happy to update it or make additions if others think it’s missing anyone interesting in the space–feedback, questions, and comments are heartily encouraged.) You can see a human-readable version of the list at this link, or find the computer parse-able/feed reader subscribe-able link here.

To make it explicit, I’ll also note that these lists also help me to keep up with people and changes in the timeframe between conferences.

Anecdotal Domains observations

In executing this OPML project I noticed some interesting things about the Domains community at large (or at least those who are avid enough to travel and attend in person or actively engage online). I’ll lay these out below. Perhaps at a future date, I’ll do a more explicit capture of the data with some analysis.

The largest majority of sites I came across were, unsurprisingly, WordPress-based, which made it much easier to find RSS feeds to read/consume material. I could simply take a domain name and add /feed/ to the end of the URL, and voilà, a relatively quick follow!

There are a lot of people whose sites didn’t have obvious links to their feeds. To me this is a desperate tragedy for the open web. We’re already behind the eight ball compared to social media and corporate controlled sites, why make it harder for people to read/consume our content from our own domains? And as if to add insult to injury, the places on one’s website where an RSS feed link/icon would typically live were instead populated by links to corporate social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In a few cases I also saw legacy links to Google+ which ended service and disappeared from the web along with a tremendous number of online identities and personal data on April 2, 2019. (Here’s a reminder to remove those if you’ve forgotten.) For those who are also facing this problem, there’s a fantastic service called SubToMe that has a universal follow button that can be installed or which works well with a browser bookmarklet and a wide variety of feed readers.

I was thrilled to see a few people were using interesting alternate content management systems/site generators like WithKnown and Grav. There were  also several people who had branched out to static site generators (sites without a database). This sort of plurality is a great thing for the community and competition in the space for sites, design, user experience, etc. is awesome. It’s thrilling to see people in the Domains space taking advantage of alternate options, experimenting with them, and using them in the wild.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I’ll note that I did see a few poor souls who were using Wix. I know there was at least one warning about Wix at the conference, but in case it wasn’t stated explicitly, Wix does not support exporting data, which makes any potential future migration of sites difficult. Definitely don’t use it for any extended writing, as cutting and pasting more than a few simple static pages becomes onerous. To make matters worse, Wix doesn’t offer any sort of back up service, so if they chose to shut your site off for any reason, you’d be completely out of luck. No back up + no export = I couldn’t recommend using.

If your account or any of your services are cancelled, it may result in loss of content and data. You are responsible to back up your data and materials. —Wix Terms of Use

I also noticed a few people had generic domain names that they didn’t really own (and not even in the sense of rental ownership). Here I’m talking about domain names of the form username.domainsproject.com. While I’m glad that they have a domain that they can use and generally control, it’s not one that they can truly exert full ownership over. (They just can’t pick it up and take it with them.) Even if they could export/import their data to another service or even a different content management system, all their old links would immediately disappear from the web. In the case of students, while it’s nice that their school may provide this space, it is more problematic for data portability and longevity on the web that they’ll eventually lose that institutional domain name when they graduate. On the other hand, if you have something like yourname.com as your digital home, you can export/import, change content management services, hosting companies, etc. and all your content will still resolve and you’ll be imminently more find-able by your friends and colleagues. This choice is essentially the internet equivalent of changing cellular providers from Sprint to AT&T but taking your phone number with you–you may change providers, but people will still know where to find you without being any the wiser about your service provider changes. I think that for allowing students and faculty the ability to more easily move their content and their sites, Domains projects should require individual custom domains.

If you don’t own/control your physical domain name, you’re prone to lose a lot of value built up in your permalinks. I’m also reminded of here of the situation encountered by faculty who move from one university to another. (Congratulations by the way to Martha Burtis on the pending move to Plymouth State. You’ll notice she won’t face this problem.)  There’s also the situation of Matthew Green, a security researcher at Johns Hopkins whose institutional website was taken down by his university when the National Security Agency flagged an apparent issue. Fortunately in his case, he had his own separate domain name and content on an external server and his institutional account was just a mirrored copy of his own domain.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
—Mel Brooks from The Producers (1968), obviously with the it being a referent to A Domain of One’s Own.

Also during my project, I noted that quite a lot of people don’t list their own personal/professional domains within their Twitter or other social media profiles. This seems a glaring omission particularly for at least one whose Twitter bio creatively and proactively claims that they’re an avid proponent of A Domain of One’s Own.

And finally there were a small–but still reasonable–number of people within the community for whom I couldn’t find their domain at all! A small number assuredly are new to the space or exploring it, and so I’d give a pass, but I was honestly shocked that some just didn’t.

(Caveat: I’ll freely admit that the value of Domains is that one has ultimate control including the right not to have or use one or even to have a private, hidden, and completely locked down one, just the way that Dalton chose not to walk in the conformity scene in The Dead Poet’s Society. But even with this in mind, how can we ethically recommend this pathway to students, friends, and colleagues if we’re not willing to participate ourselves?)

Too much Twitter & a challenge for the next Domains Conference

One of the things that shocked me most at a working conference about the idea of A Domain of One’s Own within education where there was more than significant time given to the ideas of privacy, tracking, and surveillance, was the extent that nearly everyone present gave up their identity, authority, and digital autonomy to Twitter, a company which actively represents almost every version of the poor ethics, surveillance, tracking, and design choices we all abhor within the edtech space.

Why weren’t people proactively using their own domains to communicate instead? Why weren’t their notes, observations, highlights, bookmarks, likes, reposts, etc. posted to their own websites? Isn’t that part of what we’re in all this for?!

One of the shining examples from Domains 2019 that I caught as it was occurring was John Stewart’s site where he was aggregating talk titles, abstracts, notes, and other details relevant to himself and his practice. He then published them in the open and syndicated the copies to Twitter where the rest of the conversation seemed to be happening. His living notebook– or digital commmonplace book if you will–is of immense value not only to him, but to all who are able to access it. But you may ask, “Chris, didn’t you notice them on Twitter first?” In fact, I did not! I caught them because I was following the live feed of some of the researchers, educators, and technologists I follow in my feed reader using the OPML files mentioned above. I would submit, especially as a remote participant/follower of the conversation, that his individual posts were worth 50 or more individual tweets. Just the additional context they contained made them proverbially worth their weight in gold.

Perhaps for the next conference, we might build a planet or site that could aggregate all the feeds of people’s domains using their categories/tags or other means to create our own version of the Twitter stream? Alternately, by that time, I suspect that work on some of the new IndieWeb readers will have solidified to allow people to read feeds and interact with that content directly and immediately in much the way Twitter works now except that all the interaction will occur on our own domains.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

As educators, one of the most valuable things we can and should do is model appropriate behavior for students. I think it’s high time that when attending a professional conference about A Domain of One’s Own that we all ought to be actively doing it using our own domains. Maybe we could even quit putting our Twitter handles on our slides, and just put our domain names on them instead?

Of course, I wouldn’t and couldn’t suggest or even ask others to do this if I weren’t willing and able to do it myself.  So as a trial and proof of concept, I’ve actively posted all my interactions related to Domains 2019 that I was interested in to my own website using the tag Domains 2019.  At that URL, you’ll find all the things I liked and bookmarked, as well as the bits of conversation on Twitter and others’ sites that I’ve commented on or replied to. All of it originated on my own domain, and, when it appeared on Twitter, it was syndicated only secondarily so that others would see it since that was where the conversation was generally being aggregated. You can almost go back and recreate my entire Domains 2019 experience in real time by following my posts, notes, and details on my personal website.

So, next time around can we make an attempt to dump Twitter!? The technology for pulling it off certainly already exists, and is reasonably well-supported by WordPress, WithKnown, Grav, and even some of the static site generators I noticed in my brief survey above. (Wix obviously doesn’t even come close…)

I’m more than happy to help people build and flesh out the infrastructure necessary to try to make the jump. Even if just a few of us began doing it, we could serve as that all-important model for others as well as for our students and other constituencies. With a bit of help and effort before the next Domains Conference, I’ll bet we could collectively pull it off. I think many of us are either well- or even over-versed in the toxicities and surveillance underpinnings of social media, learning management systems, and other digital products in the edtech space, but now we ought to attempt a move away from it with an infrastructure that is our own–our Domains.

Domains 2019 Reflections from Afar was originally published on Chris Aldrich