What I expect from a modern news reader

Or, how to not annoy an information junkie

I’ve come to expect a certain number of “core” features when it comes to my precious feed-reading rituals, and if any of them is missing from an app I probably won’t use it for very long.

When reading through the below list please keep in mind that 100% of my feed consumption is via iOS devices, and because of that I’m just not too concerned with the desktop/mobile browser experience. That said, most of the things listed below should apply to those surfaces as well. Also, these features mostly are concerned with user-facing clients and not backend systems and services, so I’m not getting into syncing or anything else like that — plumbing is table stakes.

I’m fully aware that some of these may seem a bit trivial, especially when considered individually, but when taken together over hundreds of feeds ingested every day, they make for an incredibly powerful — and efficient — skimming/consumption experience.

  • Mark-as-read-on-scroll (in a multi-item view) I’m always surprised when this is missing. It’s especially handy for high-volume feeds, where without it you’d have to scroll through every unread item before being able to move on to the next feed/folder, because only then would you feel comfortable marking the feed/folder as read.
  • Offer multiple ways of moving to the next unread item When viewing a particular item, moving to the next item should always be possible by swiping up when at the end of the item. Additionally, an on-screen control for this sort of thing can be especially useful when dealing with full-content items, where, in the case of “long” items, getting to the next one may require a lot of scrolling before being able to transition to it using the swipe-up gesture.
  • Ability to turn off animations Animations can be pretty, and delightful, but when experienced hundreds of times a day they can start to feel “heavy” and inefficient; sometimes it makes more sense to just turn them off completely. This should be configurable.
  • Act on feed items without having to jump into them Here I’m referring mainly to the ability to save an item to a “read later” service while scrolling through a multi-item list. Often as you’re scrolling through a list of feed items you can tell whether an item is something you want to act on without having to actually jump into it. In Newsify, for example, if I want to save something to Pocket while scrolling through a list, I simply long-tap the item (no matter the layout mode) and it gets shuttled along.
  • Save internal links to a “read later” service How often are you reading an article and want to save to a “read later” service a link you come across within that article? Most clients offer the ability to act on the link via the system-wide iOS dingus, but only a few let you send the link directly to your “read later” service of choice. If the “read later” option isn’t available, I usually have to open the link in Safari, and then use a bookmarklet/extension to send it to the service I want. That’s crazy, and about 10 steps too many.
  • Show thumbnail images if available I realize some people don’t like thumbnails in their feed readers (especially given the propensity for some writers to add images to their articles that don’t necessarily inform the reader, because they know articles with images tend to get more views), and want to see only the title and maybe a line or two of preview text, but I find my skimming usually is much faster when thumbnails are shown; it’s much easier for me to determine at a glance whether the article is something I want to see more of. This is especially true for particular feeds; for example, I have a feed that’s focused on car news, and because of thumbnails I can blaze through its unread items very quickly.
  • Offer multiple layout modes There usually are two that are most important: a list view where each item is presented in a uniform size (including length of title, number of preview lines, etc.); and a newspaper-style view where the width (and sometimes height) of the “box” in which an item is presented can vary based on, for example, whether that item has any images associated with it, etc. This should be configurable (and, ideally, on a folder-by-folder and feed-by-feed basis).
  • Show only feeds and folders with unread items This one seems so obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many apps out there force you to scroll through your entire list of feeds/folders, despite there being something new in just a few of them. Silly. Hide that shit.
  • Show oldest items first Again, another thing that you’d think couldn’t be more obvious. I want to view articles in the order they’re published, not the reverse.
  • Never require mark-all-as-read confirmation Ever. Just don’t do it.
  • Show read/unread progress when inside a feed or folder There are certain feeds or folders of feeds that I always run through item-by-item (e.g., my folder of individual bloggers), and it’s nice to know how far along I am in the list while in the process of going through it (e.g., display “3 / 8 articles read” above the current article).
  • Offer options when finishing a feed or folder of feeds Some clients jump right into the next unread feed or folder, others bring you back to the main list of feeds/folders. This should be configurable.
  • Customizable “Services” menu The client should support as many services as is practicable, and the user should be able to choose which of those appears in the services menu.
  • Switch easily to a web-based view 99% of the time I’m fine with being shown a “sanitized”, uniform, content-only version of an item’s corresponding web page, but it should be very easy to view the page “natively” in an in-app browser. Which of these to show by default (i.e., sanitized or in-app browser) should be configurable (and, ideally, on a feed-by-feed basis).
  • Filtering at the item level Frankly, I think this is something that should come with anything you use to consume any type of content, but it rarely does. In fact, I’m not aware of any major RSS app (for iOS) that lets you hide some of your feed items based on constraints you specify. For years I used Yahoo! Pipes for this sort of thing, and while it was a little clunky, it worked really well…but Yahoo killed that a coupe of years ago. (I’m aware that Feed Wrangler offers filters, though I don’t think at this point they’re too robust (e.g., no regex, etc.). I’m keeping my eye on this.)
  • Site/author attribution in folder view When looking at more than a single feed at once (e.g., when viewing a folder’s worth of items), it’s nice to be able to see which site and/or author a particular item belongs to, because that information might ultimately determine whether you want to take further action on that item. Same goes for multi-author sites.
  • Prefetch all the things All feed images should be downloaded when syncing, and not when an item is opened. The last thing you want to do when jumping into a feed item is have to wait for an image to load; do this a hundred times in a row and you’ll understand how truly maddening it can be. There should be an option to turn this off if using a connection other than WiFi, but otherwise you should be slurping down everything at sync time.

So, what do I use?

Newsify, on both iPhone and iPad. I’ve been using it for years without issue, and it’s updated fairly often. It talks to Feedly (through which I manage my RSS feeds) without a hitch, and does all of the things listed above and more (except item-level filtering). As mentioned, I basically just don’t do news reading on the desktop anymore, but in a pinch, Feedly’s site is perfectly usable.