What should I use instead of Google Reader?

The company is retiring its RSS reader. But there are some viable replacements, writes Alex Hern.

Direst news! Google is turning off its Google Reader service on 1 July, eight years after its birth.

Of course, if you are in what is apparently the vast majority of the population, you either haven't heard of Google Reader, haven't used it, or haven't logged in for years. The company cites declining usage of the service as a reason for its retirement, and they probably aren't making that up: the idea of reading the web by subscribing to RSS feeds through an dedicated app, once posited as the future of publishing, never hit the widespread usage it was expected to.

And if you do use the service, it probably isn't news that it's shutting either—because you've probably already logged in, this morning or last night, to be greeted with the dialogue box of doom:

If you are anything like me, and apparently most of my Twitter followers, you have already got your panicking out of the way. Now the dreadful thought bubbles up: what happens next?

Firstly: don't panic! (Any more than you already have.) Although Google Reader is used as a back-end service for a number of RSS apps, like Reeder and Feedly, a number of them—including those two—have confirmed that they already have plans for a replacement syncing service which should let users carry on as though Reader never shut.

If you are a die-hard user of the Reader web-app, though, you're going to have to make the switch as some point. Come 1 July, reader.google.com will presumably shut down—or, even worse, redirect to Google+—and you'll have to find a new way of using your feeds.

The first thing to do is nab your data out of Google Reader. The company offers its Takeaway service, which ought to make this easy to do. Just click here, and follow the steps.

Once you've got that far, where you go next depends on what you used the old Reader for. There's multiple services which scratch different itches, and any one of them could be right for you.

The most obvious recommendation is The Old Reader. Exactly as it sounds, this is a clone of the old Google Reader (old in this case meaning old-old—it mimics Google Reader as it was before the company removed sharing functionality at the end of 2011). It's still in beta, and doesn't have a mobile app or an API, so if you transfer your data to it, you'll need to be prepared to be in the browser a lot. But if you're averse to change, this might be the best option.

If you're someone who uses Google Reader as a gentle browser, then consider Flipboard. The service is designed for lean-back reading, rather than obsessive newshounds, but it does what it does exceptionally well. If you're the sort of person who panics about not reading every post on your favourite site, it's not for you, but if you've been using Google Reader to find interesting things from a few sources, it might make life more pleasant. Mobile only, though, so you'll need to compliment it with something that has a web or desktop app.

At the exact opposite end of the spectrum is Newsblur. This is designed explicitly for obsessive newshounds; it's fast, powerful and, though I love it, ugly as sin. It takes all your feeds in, and applies a smart filter to them to push the breakingest news to the top of your pile. If you only have fifty feeds, it might be overkill; but if you're pushing five hundred, you'll wonder how you lived without it.

Newsblur also has a mobile app, and the developer has a far nicer-looking UI in beta. It's where I'm planning to move my data, and I don't appear to be alone: by 7:30am this morning, the developer had moved from one server to six, and gone to bed for the night; as I write this, the site is down under excessive load.

Perhaps the best thing about Newsblur, though, is that it's not free (it lets you trial it, but caps your subscription at 100 feeds until you pay). That may be an odd thing to say, but the fact is that if Google Reader hadn't been a hobby for the company—it was staffed, in its dying days, by just five people—it may have stayed alive. We've all heard the clichés, that if you aren't paying, you're not the customer, you're the product; but they are clichés for a reason. Assuming that it successfully scales up past this initial burst of popularity, maybe having all your data on a service with a financial motivation for keeping it is not such a bad idea?

And for the small subset of Google users for whom Reader was a lifeline, this ought to ring warning bells for the rest of the company's services. Sure, Reader wasn't used by many people, while Gmail is the world's email service; but what happens if Google decides that it isn't making enough money to justify running a free email service, and ports everyone to Google+? Will your self-driving car enter a "sunset phase" if the number of users drops below some arbitrary level eight years after you bought it?

The market for news aggregators might get a kick up the arse from the exit of a corporate behemoth which had previously been smothering all innovation with an abandoned, yet still good-enough, free product. As Gawker's Max Read wrote, it kind of excites me, "in the same way i am excited at the prospect of navigating a postapocalyptic urban landscape".

We might end up better after the fall, but it's going to be a struggle to get there.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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