How to Subscribe to News Feeds and Blogs

NOTE: This article applies to Thunderbird 24 and above.

Websites may publish content for download by applications using one of either the RSS or Atom protocols. Such content is commonly called a "news feed" or "RSS feed" or "syndication". Feeds are often used by blogs, but more traditional websites can make any content available in this format. When you subscribe to a site's feed link, your feed reader (for example, Thunderbird) automatically checks the location and downloads the articles to local folders.

When you use Thunderbird to handle your Feeds, you can use the same presentation and tools (archiving, filters, search, etc.) that you are familiar with from managing your email messages.

Step 1: Create a Feed Account

First you must create an account in Thunderbird for your Feeds.

1. In the Menu Bar, click File | New | Feed Account. The Feed Account Wizard window appears.

2. Type a name for your Feed account in the Account Name box, then click Next.

3. Click Finish. Your new account will now appear in Thunderbird's folder pane.

Step 2: Subscribe to Feeds

Next, choose the feeds you want to subscribe to.

1. Use your web browser to open a website that you want to subscribe to. Most media sites and blogs that are regularly updated have Feeds.

2. Look for a familiar RSS icon or text link on the site. On most sites the link appears at the bottom or on the side of the home page.

rss icon on website

3. Right-click on the RSS link and copy the link’s address. (If you use Mozilla Firefox, click Copy Link Location on the context menu. If you use Google Chrome, click Copy link address.)

copying rss link from website

NOTE: On some large websites, the home page’s rss or feeds hyperlink is not a feed itself, but a link to a set of feeds provided by the site. For example, a major media site may have different feeds for its news, sports and entertainment sections. Just click the RSS icon on the home page, then perform Step 3 on the page that hosts all the site’s feeds.

4. In Thunderbird, click your Feed Account name in the folder pane.

5. Click Manage subscriptions to open the Subscribe Dialog.

6. In the Feed URL box, right-click and paste the link address from the website.

7. Click Add. Thunderbird will validate the link, create a new folder, subscribe a valid link to the new folder, and download all current articles. The new folder appears under your Feed Account in the folder pane.

rss subscriptions dialog

8. Feeds can also be quickly subscribed by drag and dropping links from a browser onto either the Feed Account folder or any other folder in a Feed Account, directly in the folder pane. If a new folder is created, the folder's name is derived from the feed's title.

NOTE: Thunderbird will validate new feed urls and let you check for correct protocol syntax in an existing feed. For already added Feeds, click the Validate link in the Subscribe Dialog. If a feed does not Validate in Thunderbird (for example, if it is a web page), it may, however, appear to be correct in the Validation Service. This is because the Service will attempt to locate a valid link. Check that the Service's link is the same as the link you entered in Thunderbird. (A web page may have more than one feed url in it; the Service will use the first one it finds.)

Step 3: Reading Feeds

Reading your Feeds is as easy as using your email in Thunderbird.

1. Click Get New Messages to download all the newest feed messages, along with your regular email messages. If you right click on a specific folder and select Get Messages, only messages for that folder's subscriptions (and all of its subfolders) will be retrieved.

2. In the folder pane, click on the folder whose content you want to read. A list of unread messages from the feed appears in the message list pane.

3. Click on a message in the message list.

4. Read the article in the message body. If you’d like to see the article on the website, click the link in the message header next to Website (this will open the link in your default browser).

rss message view

5. You may also select the view action to perform when double clicking or hitting <enter> on a Feed message selected in the list. The options are found in Message | When Opening Feed Messages.

NOTE: You can set whether the message displays as an article summary or the article web page in two ways:
  • In the Subscribe Dialog, select the feed folder and check the Show the article summary instead of loading the web page box. This preference applies to all feeds in the folder.
  • Select a message from the message list, then click View | Feed Message Body As, and select whether to use the Default Format (folder setting above), or override the default and show Summary or Web Page globally.
In Tools | Account Settings, select the name of your Feed Account and check the By default, show the article summary instead of loading the web page box. This selection is the default for all new feed subscriptions that create a folder in that Account.

Step 4: Organizing and Managing your Feeds

Folders and Accounts

You can create email-style folders to group individual feeds:

1. In the folderpane, click on your Feeds Account name to select it.

2. Click File | New | Folder. The New Folder dialog box appears.

3. Type a name for your new folder, then click Create Folder. To create subfolders of your folders, first select the folder you want as the parent folder, then click File | New | Subfolder.

4. Alternatively, you can organize your feeds by creating additional Feed Accounts. Just repeat Step 1: Create for every account you want to create, giving each one a different name. Multiple accounts are useful if some feeds update frequently and others infrequently, as currently the update time is set per account only (Bug 257037). Also, only one unique feed url may be subscribed per account.

NOTE: A Feed Account subfolder may contain zero, one, or many subscriptions.

The Subscribe Dialog

1. From a folderpane folder it is easy to go directly to managing feeds by right clicking and selecting the Subscribe… menuitem.

2. The dialog will open with the folder selected and opened, showing the folder's feed subscriptions.

3. Feeds may be drag and dropped and otherwise organized in folders however you like. For example, it is useful to have a blog feed and its comments feed both subscribed to the same folder. (Publishers may even construct their feeds so items thread together as in email!)

NOTE: Moving or removing a feed subscription from a folder will not affect already downloaded articles in any way. If you remove a feed url subscription, the currently active items list is also cleaned up. As a result, resubscribing the feed url will cause already downloaded messages to be stored again. Deleting a folder or moving it to trash automatically unsubscribes all feeds from the folder.

Automatic Tagging

If the publisher adds <category> tags to feed items, you may choose to autotag feed articles with these values. A <category> value corresponds to one keyword tag in Thunderbird. A feed item may have numerous <category> tags.

1. In the Subscribe Dialog, select the feed and check the Automatically create tags from feed <category> names box.

2. You may also add a custom prefix to better differentiate tags.

The tags are stored in the Keywords: header (RFC5322 compliant) for portability. They are also tagged by Thunderbird's internal system and stored in the X-Mozilla-Keys: header of the article. As a result, tags will appear in the message header and work with the Quick Filter and Message Filters and Searches tag rules.

Import and Export your Feeds

1. If you have a list of feed urls exported in the OPML format to a file, perhaps from another feed reader, you may Import them using Tools | Import | Feed Subscriptions. Choose either a new or existing Feeds Account.

2. You may also Import using the Subscribe Dialog, selecting the Feed Account folder, and clicking Import.

3. To Export, select the Feed Account (top folder) in the Subscribe Dialog and click Export. The folder structure and preferences of your feeds will be saved to a .opml file. (To Export a simple list, press Ctrl then click the button).

Tips

  • To quickly mark a feed's messages as all read, so they no longer appear in bold type, press Shift + C while the feed is selected.
  • To set how often Thunderbird checks for new feed messages, click on Tools | Account Settings or Edit | Account Settings to open the dialog, then click on the name of your Feed Account. Set the Check for new articles minutes.
  • Feed article retention is managed just like for email. Click on Disc Space below your Feed Account name in Account Settings for more options.
  • Use the Quick Filter toolbar to save time if you're getting a lot of messages from a feed.
  • If you wish to use Message Filters on feed messages and filter by website, create a Custom header named Content-Base. This header contains the feed message's website link.
  • Feed articles may be placed in 'the cloud' by setting up a filter to copy or move items to an IMAP account folder. This is not true syncing in any way, but may be useful in some cases. The filter bug to enable this has been fixed for Tb 38 release.

Tips for Publishers

  • The Atom specification is recommended. If you use the RSS2.0 spec, a <guid> is recommended. Also, <title> and <link> are mandatory per spec and the feed will be rejected if they are not present. Another common error is representing unicode characters with octals. Please follow the specs and validate and everyone will win.
  • The Last-Modified header should be returned in your server's response. Thunderbird will send this value in If-Modified-Since in its next request to your server, which you can 304 if appropriate. This saves unnecessary bandwidth usage and processing if there are no new items or changes to your file.
  • New in Tb 27: If you use Atom and its threading extension, Thunderbird will group related feed items (like comments to a post) into threads just like it does with related email messages.
  • New in Tb 38: Changes to feed urls can be detected by Thunderbird and updated automatically for users. See Bug 304917 for two ways of doing this.

Advanced Tips

  • The feed update frequency in Check for new articles should be set to minimize unnecessary bandwidth usage and Thunderbird processing, if the publisher is not using Last-Modified above. If it is being used, an immediate There are no new articles for this feed appears in the statusbar when manually getting new messages for the folder twice quickly.
  • A feed url may be added without being online; adding in offline mode will bypass feed validation. If offline (to go offline, click the statusbar icon), a dialog will appear asking to go online for new messages. Cancel the prompt and the feed will be added. The feed's Title will be the url and may be edited. Once back online, Thunderbird may fail the feed for invalid url or syntax but it will exist in the database.
  • Thunderbird has extensive logging of Feed activity, viewable in Tools | Error Console. Change the preference Feeds.logging.console to debug or trace (and restart) to see details of Feed processing.

Troubleshooting FAQ

Q: Why are feed messages sometimes duplicated?

A: Feed messages with identical content but different unique ids are not detected as duplicates. See this post for many more details.

Q: When viewing a feed web page, why are there blocks of text or code or script sometimes visible? [NOTE: Fixed for Tb 38 release.]

A: See Bug 662907 for details. A workaround is to create a css rule, in your [profile]/chrome/userChrome.css file or using the Stylish extension:

noscript { display: none !important; }

Q: When viewing a feed web page, why does a browser sometimes open or a random page sometimes load in the browser?

A: Since Thunderbird wasn't designed to be a web browser, it will send all link requests to your default browser. In this case, script on the feed web page is attempting to open a link. The best solution is to install the Adblock Plus extension. In addition to having extensive built in filters, Adblock Plus lets you configure custom urls or domains to be blocked. See also Bug 524281.

Q: Why can't I see some images or video or documents or other embedded content when viewing a feed summary?

A: This is due to javascript being disabled for messages (emails, newsgroup posts, feed summaries). The request to implement a user configurable option to enable javascript, for feed summaries only, is Bug 456481.


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