Make An RSS Powered Email List

Sometimes the problems we have are insanely more complicated than they should be, because our heads get trapped in a space they shouldn’t be. For years, I used FeedBurner to manage my RSS feeds. Then I realized I didn’t care that much, I didn’t need to know who was accessing my feeds, and really the only benefit was that I could put ads in my feeds (which … no one clicked on anyway) and 12 people could subscribe via email. Well, with some research I found that I could put ads in my feeds with some WordPress functions (I’ve since removed them) and I could use Subscribe2 as a plugin to email when I had new posts. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Subscribe2 except I didn’t like the interface. It’s on the back end of WordPress. My site is a BuddyPress site. Everything is on the front end for my users, and I like it that way. It all looks ‘branded.’ The plugin dev was, fairly, under the idea of ‘Works how I want it.’ I thought about forking, but as I looked at the code, I thought that I really didn’t need WordPress to handle this. I needed a way to email an RSS feed to a mailing list. A proper, opt-in, stable, mailing list, that wouldn’t affect my blog while processing.

I found an answer that can be applied to any site, WordPress or not.

What?

The problem:
I have an RSS feed I want to be able to email to people who don’t like RSS, and I don’t want to use FeedBurner, MailChimp or any external process.

The solution:

  • Setup a MailMan list for your emails and configure as needed
  • Install and configure rss2email
  • Setup a cron job

Why?

Why not use [this product]? When I presented this to people the first thing they said was ‘Just use FeedBurner!’ or ‘Use MailChimp!’ I get that I can use those third-party vendors, but I don’t want to. I like to self-host because then, if things go wrong, I have the ability to do something about it. This is also how I increase my IT toolkit. I have a need, I find a solution. Sometimes I write the code, and sometimes I just master a new tool.

Why Mailman? Mailman (or properly GNU Mailman) is installed on my server and while it may be old, the current stable version is 2.1.14, and that came out September 2010. It’s still updated, maintained and supported. And it works. I’m familiar with it, I’m comfortable with it, and there’s no reason not to. I did experiment with phpList, which claims to be able to handle RSS feeds as ‘source’ on it’s own. The problem, as my Twitter buddy @JohnPBloch warned me, is it’s not friendly. He said “I don’t care much for phpList. I always felt like the software was working against me instead of with me.” And he’s right. It took 5 minutes of setup for me to gag and delete it.

Why rss2email? I don’t think RSS is dead. In fact, I still prefer it to email (or Twitter). My unread RSS list (currently run via Google Reader) sits, quietly, patiently, waiting my attention. I don’t get spam or junk feeds, and if I decided to mark all my Fail Blog feeds as read without reading them, no one knows but me. I don’t have to reply to anything, and I can go back to using my email for communication. That said, I know a lot of people who like to get updates in their email, so I have to take that into consideration when running a site. Sometimes, when you make a site, you cater to yourself. Sometimes you cater to your audience.

Why cron? I’m on Linux. That’s what you do when you want to schedule things.

How?

Bear in mind that my details are going to be specific to my situation.

Mailman is the easiest. You make a mailing list. I wanted an announcement mailing list, so under Privacy options -> Sender Filters I set up that all users were moderated by default and to discard their emails. Then added my email under “List of non-member addresses whose postings should be automatically accepted.” I knew I was going to have emails sent from a specific address, and I didn’t want that address to GET the emails, so by putting it on that list, I don’t have to worry about approving posts. That’s pretty much all the ‘special’ customization I did. If I’d wanted to put a reject to other people’s emails to the list, instead of a discard, I’d have added this “This is an announcement only list. Your post has been rejected.”

rss2email was the hardest, but only because it was new. The install process is really straightforward. I made very minor tweaks to the config.py file, based on a first run when I realized that my mailing list would strip HTML. I set HTML_EMAIL and USE_CSS_STYLING to 0 to get it all to plain text. I changed my DEFAULT_FROM and OVERRIDE_FROM to ‘pretty’ versions of my domain information. Then I had to customize my SMTP stuff, since it requires authentication and is on a special port (not 25).

cron was the most surprising. Since I have to run rss2email out of the same folder it’s in (Python…) I wrote a quick shell script called rss2email.sh that has two steps. It changes directory to my install of rss2email and then it calls the command ./r2e run. Then I called it with a twice-daily (0 and 12) cron job with /home/USERNAME/rss2email.sh and it’s done. I’m not going to give you a blow by detail on how to do cron stuff. It’s way too complicated to try and overview here.

Satisfied?

Pretty well. I’m still massaging the output a bit. The HTML output of a full RSS entry was weird. After changing my WordPress feed to excerpts, I ended up with some weird lines in my emails:

This was caused by some old functions I had in my theme to insert ads into my feeds (mentioned above). I took that out, called ./r2e reset to clean out the database, and then re-ran the script. Worked fine! I admit, I had some moments where I didn’t like putting the excerpt in. I use a custom crafted excerpt in every single post on this site as part of my layout, and while I prefer to avoid ‘read more!’ type things in my feeds, I realized my custom excerpts would be ‘good enough’ for anyone who cared. I do wish WordPress would make two feeds, one excerpt and one none, but that’s a job for another day. At least I’ve managed to semi-customize my Mailman digest header (via manually editing masthead.txt).

After all my testing, I deleted the mailing list and reset everything, did a clean build, and voila! Works like a champ, without putting extra stress on things!

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Comments

  1. Nice writeup! I’m glad rss2email is working for you.

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