Tech Tips for Tweeners: News, Newsgroups and Newsreaders


One of the primary purposes of Newsome.Org is to introduce and explain computer-related programs and features to other in-betweeners like me- people who are the parents of the youngsters to whom computers and the internet are as integral as the telephone and the children of our parents who have no intention of ever embracing computers.

People in this 35-60 group are in an odd situation. Most have, perhaps begrudgingly, accepted computers as a tool to help them work- at least as far as emails and light word processing goes. But to many, anything beyond that is unfamiliar and confusing. Because I am the neighborhood computer geek, I get a lot of questions about technology. Over the years, two things have become clear. One, many in-betweeners view computers as a chore themselves as opposed to a method to make chores easier. Two, with a little work these same people can and will learn how to make computers work for them. There is always an initial hesitation (“I don’t understand all of that,” “If I give a web site my personal information, my identity will be stolen immediately, etc.”), but these folks have been around technology long enough to pick up more than they think via osmosis and to become comfortable around technology. That’s a valuable head start that will significantly lower the learning curve.

So let’s talk about one way we can make computers work for us. Anyone reading this knows how to send email, so we’ll skip that. Let’s talk about the second most commonly used benefit of computers and the internet: information gathering.

Any information gathering process starts with Google‘s web search. But there are other ways to get even more specific information. Let’s talk about newsgroups.

First, let’s address some terms, that may sound alike, but are not the same thing:

Newsgroups. A newsgroup (focus on the group half, not the news half) is a central list of messages, organized by topic, posted by many users at different locations. Stated another way, newsgroups are discussion groups where people discuss, teach, inquire about, etc. a topic of presumed common interest. For example, there are newsgroups about fishing, hunting, quilting- just about everything. A newsgroup looks similar to the list of email in your inbox, the difference being that the messages are composed by a large group of people from all over the world. From a technical perspective newsgroups are different from web-based message boards, like Songwriting.Org, but from an end user and experience perspective, they are similar. There are two ways to read newsgroups: via a newsgroup reader, such as Outlook Express (which is almost certainly already installed on your computer) or via the web through everyone’s favorite web site, Google. Newsgroup readers have to be configured, which, while not terribly hard to do, is more than a lot of people want to do (recall my mantra- if you want people to use technology, make technology easy to use). Reading newsgroups via Google is much easier. You can find groups you’re interested in via the search box, click on the link to read the messages and “subscribe” or bookmark the group by clicking on the link at the top of the list of messages. Here is a screenshot showing what a typical newsgroup looks like in Outlook Express:


and here is what one looks like via Google.

So why in the world would anyone want to read newsgroups? Simple, to get answers to questions. When I am trying to fix a computer problem, a broken toilet or almost any other problem, I start by searching the newsgroups, via Google. Very few problems haven’t already been solved by someone else and most of those solutions are readily accessible via newsgroups. Most of the hard computer or software problems I have encountered were solved via suggestions I read on newsgroups. And most of the time, you don’t even have to post a question to get the answer. Just search for the problem and you’ll generally find that someone else has already asked it and received an answer.

News Readers and RSS. For some strange reason, the programs that read RSS, which is a relatively new method of distribtuing web site content (like the content on this page) are confusingly called news readers (focus on the readers half, not the news half). They are also called RSS readers, feed readers and feed aggregators. The content displayed by these programs is repackaged web site content, not newsgroups. It’s confusing, but think of it as newsgroups (Google just calls them groups) where a group of people post messages and news readers that allow you to read news (and other content) posted by people like me on their web sites.

News: Don’t get traditional news sites, such as CNN or Google News confused with the stuff we talked about above. Those are traditional news sites, with traditional news. You can usually read that content through a newsreader (look for the RSS link), but that’s the only connection between those sites and newsgroups and newsreaders.

So what do I use for all this? There are many good programs. Here’s what I use:

Reading Newsgroups: Outlook Express, more than likely the program you use to send email from home. I use Outlook (a more robust program with a similar name) for email, but I use Outlook Express to read newsgroups.

Searching Newsgroups: Google. There is no substitute. If I find a group I like, I’ll subscribe to it via Outlook Express, but as mentioned above, you can easily read and post directly from Google.

Newsreader: Onfolio, which has many great features. There are also web based newsreaders. Of the ones on that list, I have tried and liked Newsgator and Bloglines. Both are free.

Once you go to the effort to set these programs up, they make it easy to find, collect and store information. It’s a little learning time now that is repaid with interest when you need information fast.

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