Substack’s New RSS App Might Finally Make News Feeds Useful Again

Betting on open standards

  • Substack adds RSS to its newsletter reader.
  • Most websites can be followed via RSS.
  • RSS did not die with Google Reader in 2013.
The Substack RSS feed displayed on a MacBook computer sitting on an outdoor cafe table at night.

Substack / Unsplash / Mockup Photos

The new Substack Reader for the web lets you subscribe to any website, not just Substack newsletters. 

Substack has added RSS support to its newsletter reading app, and it may finally go some way towards replacing the much-loved Google Reader. The idea is that you read new articles from any website that publishes its updates via RSS, which is effectively all regularly-updated websites. Folks have been able to do this for years, both before and since Google Reader, but Substack might have the influence to make RSS happen again. 

"In my opinion, RSS feeds are underrated traffic acquisition paths for websites. Having an RSS feed allows you to get the content to where the reader is, rather than simply waiting on them to read it from your website," Alex Williams, owner of website hosting company Hosting Data, told Lifewire via email. "For website owners, Substack's entry into the RSS field is extremely advantageous. Not only does it allow them to access Substack's impressive audience, it also means they have one more channel to consider when trying to push their content."

Real Simple

RSS stands for Real Simple Syndication. It's a way for a website to announce that it just published something new. That could be a blog post, but RSS is also what powers podcasting. You don't go to a website to check if there is a new episode and then listen to it there on the site. You subscribe to it in a podcast app, and new episodes appear as soon as they are released. 

And you can do the same for articles published by most websites. Subscribe (or 'follow') once, and get the new stuff delivered as it happens. 

Screenshots from the Substack RSS Reader.


Because RSS is built into many website publishing platforms, it just happens. Usually, if a site doesn't have an RSS feed, it's because the site has deliberately disabled it. You can subscribe to any WordPress blog, Tumblrs, or sites like the New York Times, and even Lifewire's News feed. In fact, RSS can be a handy way to skirt article limits on some sites. 

And while some sites only offer a summary of new articles, most make the entire contents of the posts available, so you can do all your reading in one place. 

This is the big advantage over following websites on Twitter. In an RSS reader app, unread stories stick around on a list until you read them or mark them as read. You'll never miss a story. On Twitter, if you don't happen to catch a story in your timeline, it drifts past, and you'll probably miss it. Twitter is a great place for conversation, but its structure is terrible for publishing. 

Google Reader Replacement?

Google Reader was an RSS reader that ran from 2005-2013 and changed how we read news. Again, it offered nothing you couldn't already do with RSS reader apps but made it mainstream. Websites added Google Reader buttons the way they add Twitter buttons today. 

Substack might be the best-known newsletter service, so it might be able to achieve a high level of recognition, even if it comes short of Google Reader's fame. For users, adding RSS support to the newsletter reader makes perfect sense. You get all your favorite writers in one place. But what's in it for Substack? After all, it seems to conflict with promoting its own properties. 

Dark mode on the Substack RSS Reader.


"Substack is the Kleenex of email newsletters—its the main brand for a key platform," Kyle Scott Laskowski, host of the Monetize Media podcast and sports blog entrepreneur, told Lifewire via email. "Though Substack is the most popular, it will never dominate all email subscriptions. RSS is a solid way for Substack to open up its attempt at a walled garden approach for email."

It's a solid strategy but one that is easily replicated thanks to the open nature of RSS. Anyone can add it to their app. And with some irony, you can subscribe to Substack itself via RSS, in the reader app of your choice, and never give Substack your email address, visit its site, or use its app. 

That's the beauty of these old, open web technologies. They give everyone the same opportunity and don't allow anyone to lock you in, technologically at least. It's the exact opposite of Twitter. The good news is, we don't have to choose. We can use whichever service we prefer.

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