The next generation of newsreaders could do so much more for readers and publishers

It’s been just over a year since Google shut down Reader and released its choke hold on the newsreader market. Plenty of third parties have risen up to replace Reader, but so far that’s all most of them really are: replacements. There is so much more the next generation of newsreaders can offer to both readers and publishers.

For readers

This isn’t just about feature checklists. It’s about making us more efficient, more informed readers.

A much smarter inbox

At their core, most of our current newsreaders are chronological inboxes for the web. There’s the full-featured Reeder and the beautifully minimal Unread. You can get a magazine motif with Flipboard and Feedly, or go a little off the beaten path with Feed Wrangler’s filtering features. Take a step back, though, and these are all variations on one theme which, to be clear, serve a good purpose for plenty of customers.

That said, there is tremendous room for newsreaders to teach us about our personalized slice of articles, topics, and links. They could be our own news aggregator and tell us which topics are trending this week among the sites we care about, or what was popular last month, quarter, or year. Drilling down could be useful, too, by showing us the popular topics and links from all our feeds, or just from, say, our Design, Health, and Fashion groups.

Inboxes are good. But smart inboxes that make use of all this personalized data they collect would be great.

Highlights

We can highlight important passages in a book, why not our newsreaders? This would be wildly useful in plenty of scenarios and professions, though we would also need a centralized, filterable, and searchable directory of everything we highlight across all feeds and groups.

Toss in a Pocket/Instapaper read-later option to add, archive, and highlight articles from sources we are not (yet) subscribed to, and this feature alone could get people to sign up for paid premium plans.

Discovery

A natural extension of personalization and getting smart, discovery features in newsreaders could show us more about the topics and industries we’re interested in and guide us down new avenues. There are two distinct avenues here.

The first is obvious: newsreaders could show us new, reputable publications similar to what we already read. Feedly scratches the surface here, but its suggestions are cluttered with comment feeds (genuine question: besides trolls and that one person who actually cares and is helpful, who on earth subscribes to these?) and feels rudimentary.

The second challenge is less obvious, but much more interesting. Part of the discovery process could show us feeds and topics that balance what we already read.

Think about the problem most personalized services like Google and Facebook already have of creating a dangerous feedback loop that enforces our established views of the world. Now imagine if there was a way to find legitimate, trustworthy publications that offered alternative perspectives to our current stable of feeds. Many of us could use a different, reasoned view of the world in our daily information gathering, and newsreaders could fill that void.

Analysis

Newsreaders have a mountain of information at their disposal about our reading interests and habits. Making use of this data in the right way could help us read more often, weed out sources we never actually touch, develop better retention, and more. Compile the right bits of information and display them the right way, then give us tools to act and find better sources and delete the ones we don’t want. Help us learn how to be better readers and citizens.

For publishers

I’m not tremendously familiar with the business relations side of running a newsreader. But outside of a couple shops like Flipboard, I suspect not much ground has been covered in bridging the divide between publishers and readers and building new services that ultimately improve the industry for both.

Analytics

People are using the web less and adopting apps for some or all of their news. Every business wants to know more about its customers, and newsreaders are in a unique position to help. Compiling and making available anonymous user data could be a revenue source for both newsreaders and smart publishers who want to learn how to create better content people are willing to buy.

Netflix for news

As with adopting apps for news, people are also very used to all-you-can-eat content plans, whether you look at age-old packaged cable subscriptions or the newfangled Netflix. From the beginning, newsreaders have let us build our own personal Netflix of the websites we want. Publishers simply made the massive mistake of giving it all away for free.

Great newsreaders with a compelling experience, premium publishers, polished content, and an on-boarding system for all publishers big and small could turn the tables. If they avoid the New York Times’ horrible mistake and price it properly, people would be willing to pay.

Other revenue

Admittedly, there aren’t too many Netflixes in the world, so small indie newsreaders could explore alternatives. One is an advertising system built into the feed reader, opt-in for publishers that decide to explore it with, say, full-text feeds and opt-out for readers who pay into a premium tier.

Of course, overbearing advertising is a major reason that readers are turning to news apps in the first place. But tastefully done, a single Deck-like ad placed somewhere in the newsreader or each article could be a worthwhile compromise. Newsreaders could experiment with offering free access to customers and a revenue split with publishers for the ad. Customers get great free readers, premium content on their terms, and the option to pay to remove ads and unlock better features.

Moving the ball

These ideas were just the result of some quick brainstorming as a newsreader enthusiast and freelance writer. I’m sure there are plenty of worthwhile ideas I haven’t touched, so I hope I at least caught the ear of developers who have the tremendous skill of turning ideas into reality.

[photo by Arek Olek]