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Lessons from a table of contents

Last weekend I was sitting in the new and lovely public library in Princeton, N.J., catching up on my reading. I had a comfortable chair, a pile of publications and nowhere better to be.
One of the things I was reading was a back issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the oversized tabloid that serves the nonprofit world. I glanced at the cover and then turned to the table of contents. At the top of the page was a brief subhead that described the table of contents as "A guide for the busy reader."
My first reaction, given my leisurely pace that day, was to think that I had no need of such a guide. But upon reflection, I found myself pleased by that simple line. It seemed the Chronicle had found a simple way of describing the true mission of a TOC -- providing a service to the reader. As much as each headline and brief summary on a TOC is designed to lure a reader into the publication, each also serves as a gatekeeper -- telling a reader what he doesn't need to bother with. A TOC, in other words, is a service, not a sales pitch.
I thought of the Chronicle's TOC again yesterday in a conversation about RSS feeds.
Two schools of thought have emerged as RSS has grown. One group uses RSS to send headlines and summaries -- a sort of TOC entry. The other group uses RSS to send the entire article. I don't worry about which choice a publisher makes. There are good arguments for both approaches. Nonetheless, I tend to recommend that publishers start with the former and use RSS to lure readers back to a Website.
Even so, some publishers balk. They worry that providing anything over RSS will reduce traffic flow to their Website.
When I heard that worry surface in my conversation yesterday, I suggested that the way to think of RSS is as a table of contents. Giving a peek at what's inside will surely attract some readers, and will just as certainly drive some away. There is risk and opportunity there. But as long as we think of our customer first, as long as everything we do is a guide for the busy reader, then we will build loyalty.
For more about summary and full feeds, take a look at what Amy Gahran has to say.
To see how Matt McAlister is handling a switch to full feeds, take a look here.
For more about TOCs, read this article in Folio by John Brady.