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Reading Online News Items
(2014 Edition)

By Jim Calloway

The 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web just occurred. The creation date is said to be March 12, 1989, which is the date that Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote a paper proposing an arrangement of information organization and linking that grew into the WWW. Now 87 percent of American adults use the Internet and 90 percent of those say that its growth has been a good thing, according to survey results released earlier this year by the Pew Research Internet Project.

How we consume the news has certainly changed with the growth of online information and many great newspapers and magazines have gone out of business because of the availability of free information online. It is certainly no secret that the Internet and the proliferation of cable TV channels has given rise to many more limited focus sources of current news and information. One can have a focus limited to only sports news, only Oklahoma news or only technology news.

But most of us want a variety of current information sources and designing a customized newsfeed so that you get a variety of the content that you want, whether from blogs or large media companies, is an efficient way to stay on top of current information. Social media works like that to a certain extent, but it tends to reflect more what friends and family want to share than comprehensive news (and depending on your particular set of friends and family, you may get a lot more from slanted “news” sources than you want).

I know there is a risk of giving too much detail on RSS newsreaders here. They are generally not that hard to set up and manage. But the name of the tool is a bit off-putting. I’m going to use the terms reader, newsreader and feed-reader interchangeably for this discussion.

So let’s start with one bottom line. If you have never set up any custom news feed for yourself before and you own a smart phone or tablet, start with Flipboard. Flipboard will take the information sources you suggest and use them to create your own personal magazine. Actually it feels like more than one magazine. You can have your social network feeds like Twitter and Facebook, as well as blogs, news sites and other online publications. Flipboard is free, very simple and really quite beautiful.

Magazines need lots of pictures and Flipboard displays pictures associated with the particular news items or posts. So if a tweet links to an article, a picture from that article may be displayed. One can flip through many online items in short order or end up reading a lengthy piece from The New York Times.

Flipboard satisfies the primary requirement that most of us have with a news reader, which is that it has to work on the phone or mobile device. Reading a newspaper with breakfast or catching a national network TV news broadcast in the early evening were the historical ways that people consumed the news and how some still do. But having a news app on your phone lets one take advantage of spare minutes during the day.

Flipboard is an RSS feed-reader (or newsreader), but its magazine format is different than the others. The pictures make for an arguably overall richer reading experience. But it is not the speediest way to skim through many headlines, and a true newsreader will collect all of the items until you either read or delete them. Flipboard assembles a current magazine for you every time you open the app.

A reader is about the only practical way one can keep track of a variety of news sites and blogs. This is push technology where items you have asked for appear for you — and then you have to either read or delete them.  Remembering to go visit numerous websites just isn’t that realistic in today’s fast-paced world.

“I’ve kept an RSS feedreader on my phone as long as I have had a smart phone. I can’t imagine controlling news and blog reading without it,“ says Oklahoma City lawyer Elaine Dowling.

Utilizing a reader also helps with personal time management as well. You spend time reading rather than searching or surfing. If you have not opened your reader for a few days and open it to find over 100 items, you will skim and triage more effectively than if there were just five items. And, if you fall too far behind, you can always just clear everything. There will be more news tomorrow.

The big news (pun intended) in newsreaders was last summer, when Google closed its extremely popular Google Reader on July 1, 2013.

It seemed that every technology-oriented website had its own feature about the death of Google Reader and possible replacements. Here is a nice one from Gizmodo — “10 Google Reader Alternatives That Will Ease Your RSS Pain.” Lifehacker featured “Five Best Google Reader Alternatives.”

Well-known legal technology columnist Robert Ambrogi gave a lengthy discussion of his wants and needs in “How I Will Survive Without Google Reader” on his blog. Mr. Ambrogi is a journalist and so a newsreader is a required tool for him. He settled on Feedly as his alternative and gave several reasons why. It is often a good idea to use the tools that the professionals use.

If you read the three articles noted above, you will have more than enough information to make an informed decision about a newsreader. But for casual reading, Flipboard is a great starting point, especially if you use social media. One who wants to organize a number of feeds or who doesn’t want pictures may prefer Feedly.

I will note in closing that the Oklahoma State Courts Network provides news feeds for appellate opinions. You can subscribe to a combined feed for all appellate courts, or individual feeds for Oklahoma Supreme Court opinions, Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals opinions, Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals opinions or Oklahoma Attorney General opinions.

Outpacing PACER?

Lawyers who practice in the U.S. federal courts have no choice but to use PACER, the federal courts’ system for electronic access to records which marked its 25th anniversary this past December. But there are many complaints about the service’s “clunkiness” and the service is not cheap. Lawyers who often use PACER may want to be aware of a couple of add-ons to the service.

PacerPro has been around since November 2012 as a subscription service, but the monthly fee was eliminated in January. Gavin McGrane, the San Francisco lawyer who created the service has been quoted as saying he wanted people to see how good the service is. Mr. McGrane says he plans to keep PacerPro free for searching and will add paid features that enhance the service this summer. Many users have reported that the user interface of PacerPro is superior to that of PACER in several ways. You can download an entire docket with just one click. Right now it is limited to the federal district courts only, but there are plans to include bankruptcy and appellate courts. The company says they can find same-day data that PACER’s case locator misses. It also creates an archive for free downloading of materials others have pre-viously retrieved from PACER.

RECAP The Law is a free extension for Firefox and Chrome that aims to improve the experience of using PACER, the electronic public access system for the U.S. Federal District and Bankruptcy Courts. As one uses the service, it makes free copies of the docket files and PACER-downloaded PDFs to Internet Archive for others to download. It also notifies the user if a free copy of the document you seek is available and provides a download link. This can save on PACER fees. The service also gives more readable file names to PDFs that are downloaded. More information is available at the site.

You will still need a PACER account for either of these two services to function.

Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program director. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help resolving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 800-522-8065 or jimc@okbar.org. It’s a free member benefit!

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- April 12, 2014 -- Vol. 85, No. 11