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!

Published by

Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

39 thoughts on “How to follow the complete output of journalists and other writers?”

  1. This is an excellent map of the problem, Chris — and a timely one for me personally, since I’m in the middle of overhauling my own website to reflect the fact that writing is now my primary gig.

    What I think you’re missing here is that the most effective solutions will solve for the pain points among both writers and readers. You’re seeing this through the reader’s lens — and I know these pain points well, too, because I’m frequently frustrated trying to follow my favorite writers. (One reader-side pain point you didn’t capture: Could I please get a one-stop subscription that lets me know when any of my favorite journalists or authors are speaking in town — or in a nearby city?)

    But from a writer’s point of view, the pain points look quite different. The problem that most writers are trying to solve for is not, “how do I keep in touch with my fans?” but rather, “how do I sell my work to editors?” (Social media-savvy writers know that the former can help with the latter….but it’s tricky to create a website that speaks to readers while also serving the specific needs of editors. IMHO Rebecca Solnit (http://rebeccasolnit.net/) does a nice job of it.

    What MOST writers are looking for, it seems, is a way to organize and showcase their portfolio to editors. There are many web services that are trying to solve that problem, like Muck Ruck, Contently and Clippings.me. None of them work very well for someone like me, however, because (a) they don’t make it easy to showcase other parts of your work/services, if they allow for it at all, and (b) I’m too much of a tech nerd/control freak to live within their confines. I’d be a lot happier with a WordPress portfolio plugin, but I haven’t found one that’s designed specifically for writing portfolios, and portfolio plugins for photography or client projects speak to quite different requirements.

    It seems to me that there is a market opportunity here for one of the (many) portfolio services to differentiate itself by solving for fan/publicity needs as well as editor/pitching needs. But that will be tricky, because there are a couple of related ways writer/fan priorities differ from editor/publication priorities:
    1) As a writer, I want to show my past work to the editors I’m pitching, even if that past work is behind a paywall. If I have a portfolio site that’s aimed exclusively at editors, and if I’m using some noindex witchcraft (trickier and tricker!) I don’t mind putting a PDF of my paywalled work on my website so that editors can see it in my portfolio. (The editors of the publications I’m PDFing might feel differently!) But a print-from-screen PDF is not a good way of presenting my work to readers, and also, would piss my editors off if I was end-running their paywalls.
    2) Ultimately, editors want people to follow the publication, not the writer. Editors hire me to write for them because they want me to build THEIR readership, not mine. Now, if I have fans I bring with me, that’s great. But if people only visit the WSJ or The Verge to read my story, and click away, that’s not a big win. My editors — aka my customers, aka the people who pay my bills — don’t really want me to be driving subscriptions on MY site, they want me to drive subscriptions on THEIRS.

    Now it looks like something like PressForward (which I appreciate you putting me onto!) may make this less a non-zero/sum game. But I do think that any scalable and sustainable solution here will need to consider and satisfy the interdependent needs of readers, writers and editors.

    And sometimes these conflict in really practical ways: For example, many professionals advise that a writing portfolio contain ONLY a writer’s best work, or that it be organized thematically to reflect the different themes you right about. But if you’re building a reader-oriented subscription, presumably you want it to be chronological and all-encompassing. I’m trying to reconcile these on my own site by having a chronologically organized blog that posts every link as it goes live, and then a thematically organized “best of” page, which uses tags (“Top Cybersecurity”, “Top Tech Parenting”) to determine which posts make it onto the portfolio page and where they show up. But that is not a feature I’ve seen on any portfolio site to date. Again, maybe that’s a market opportunity!

  2. Chris Aldrich has a long and throught-provoking piece asking How to follow the complete output of journalists and other writers?. It drew an interesting comment from Alexandra Samuel, putting the case that publishers who have paid for a piece have no interest in an author building her own audience. They would much prefer any link to come to their website, rather than the author’s. She makes many good points too, about the different lenses through which writers, readers and publishers might view an author’s website; I want to pick on just one of them.
    To say that publishers of all kinds may be a bit short-sighted about how to make use of online distribution is to say nothing new. Authors do, of course, retain an interest in the words themselves, if not, necessarily, in their form, so I think what really needs to happen is for more first-tier authors to take upon themselves, or their hired help, the business of maintaining an online presence.
    With that in mind, I was delighted to see that Dr Samuel gave a plug to Rebecca Solnit as someone whose website “does a nice job” of speaking “to readers while also serving the specific needs of editors”. I admire Rebecca Solnit’s work enormously, and she is precisely one of the writers I wish I could follow in the way Chris outlines. She has a page that collects her essays and another one for interviews and reviews, and each of them offers a link to read at the publisher’s site. Just the job. But despite the site being built with WordPress, neither of those pages offers a feed of any kind. Nor does her homepage.
    Why is that? Could it be that Rebecca Solnit has heard about “the sad demise of RSS,” also plugged (often) by Dr Samuel?
    RSS is very definitely not dead.1 And it is not difficult to implement. Heck, I’d consider it an honour if anyone with a WordPress site asked me to do it for them, even without any of the other IndieWeb goodness. But every time a grownup says ‘I don’t believe in RSS’ there is a feed somewhere that falls down dead.

    At this point, obvs, I’d quote Mark Twain, but a little research suggests that wouldn’t be simple. 

    1. In the past I’ve used a short quote from a story I’ve written elsewhere along with a link on my site back to the paid item. It’s not something I’ve negotiated, but I see a link from my site as fair exchange for being able to repeat a few of my own words.

      I’d like to use RSS in a more sophisticated way, say filter out the links and likes from my main feed, so that readers interested in my journalism don’t need to follow ALL my brain dumps.

      At times I feel that being able to have a decent curated archive of my paid journalism on my own WordPress site is there somewhere just out of reach.

  3. you’re spot on. On Muck Rack you can “subscribe” by setting up an email alert for a when a specific journalist publishes, but it’s a bit hidden. Ping me when you’re in NYC next and would love to chat through these ideas over a coffee/beer.


    1. Tim, thanks, for the link–I think? #detritus

      I got a wonderful afternoon of music as a result, so it was definitely a win for me in the end. 🙂

      Syndicated copies:

  4. This looks like a cool little service for following creators even when they’re not aggregating all of their content on their own sites. It still relies on a broader community of bookmarking for the discovery, but it’s an interesting interesting model and a cool directory, particularly if it can reach a larger scale. Seems like part of a potential answer to my question How to follow the complete output of journalists and other writers?
    This is a lot like Huffduffer, but looks like it may have more users, but less actual functionality?

    Syndicated copies:

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