Aggregated content publications are doing really well online. Tim Spira considers whether traditional media can wish them, and their various iterations, away – or is it far too late for that?
In February, news that one-time internet heavyweight AOL acquired The Huffington Post for US$315 million launched a torrent of posts, tweets and columns opining on what the transaction meant for the future of the media. By big media merger and acquisition standards, the value of the deal was not particularly significant. But what had the pundits all a-twitter was that this value had been amassed in a mere five years by a glorified blog that combined submissions from unpaid contributors with summaries of, and links to, other people’s content.
The left-leaning website did not employ any journalists – none, at least, fitting the traditional description. There are no hacks from The Huffington Post staking out hotel rooms on the Washington beltway, or risking life and limb in Tahrir Square. Yet, despite the absence of original reporting – from the field as well as the income statement – the site was pulling in over 40 million unique browsers per month and converting them into advertising dollars.
A good news business, certainly, but is it actually good for the business of news?
Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller doesn’t think so. In a column published just before he stepped down as editor, Keller echoed the truism that if all media companies became aggregators and stopped producing original reportage, there would be nothing left to aggregate. Then he went on to characterise the phenomenon that has come to be called ’content curation’ as follows: “Taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own website and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia, this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.”
The business model in question is not new, and neither is the debate that surrounds it. Consider the perennial bouts of fist-shaking that Rupert Murdoch directs at Google. According to Murdoch, the search giant is guilty of profiting illegitimately every time it sells an advert on a search results page that indexes a NewsCorp story. Unfortunately for Murdoch, the argument can be taken only so far before Google politely reminds him that he is free to tag all his content to be invisible to the search engine’s crawlers, at which point traffic to NewsCorp’s various websites will dry up faster than a News of the World printing press.
Publishers have similarly sounded off against Zite and Pulse – tablet apps that aggregate people’s favourite websites, RSS feeds and social media streams to create personalised digital ’magazines’. But, so far, very few publishers have blocked theses aggregators from accessing their content, presumably mindful of the valuable referral traffic they generate.
What distinguishes sites like The Huffington Post from Google is that that instead of using algorithms to aggregate links, they use real live human beings. Much like traditional art curators, these human beings – dare we call them editors? – decide what goes up on the gallery wall and how it is presented. One of the pioneers of the field was Matt Drudge, whose right-leaning Drudge Report famously broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal after Newsweek spiked the story. Closer to home, publications like the Daily Maverick and technology news site Memeburn offer blog-post format articles that link out freely to various other sites. And, at Fin24, we have begun linking out from our company pages to other websites – including those of our competitors – to provide users with more comprehensive news on South African listed companies than we can offer on our own.
Like The Huffington Post, all of these examples combine curation with content generation, which goes some way towards warding off the ’End of Journalism’ scenario painted by Keller. But alarmism aside, Keller’s attack on content curation is open to a more a more fundamental critique: it is entirely futile.
Curation has been happening for a long time – both in traditional and new media formats – and it will continue to happen whether or not it is sanctioned by big media owners. With the proliferation of content in today’s digital age, massively accelerated by the universal availability of tools that turn everyone into a potential publisher, people need a way to filter out the noise and find the stuff that really interests them.
And if professional editors and clever algorithms aren’t providing this service, then consumers will simply provide it to each other. Social bookmarking tools like Del.icio.us and StumbleUpon are growing in popularity, and Twitter – that ubiquitous publishing tool which an increasing number of people rely on to stay abreast of the news – is arguably the biggest aggregator of them all.
What’s interesting is that despite the fact that aggregation and curation have been going on in various forms since the very early days of the internet, complaints about the dearth of “quality journalism” are hardly on the increase, any more than the pressures on traditional music industry models have led to a shortage of quality music. According to various research reports, including the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, people are spending more time consuming news than ever before in history, just not necessarily via traditional channels.
And if, indeed, humanity did reach the point where a particular kind of quality journalism was in high demand and short supply, market forces would kick in to drive up the price that users, advertisers and publishers were willing to pay for it.
But something that often gets lost in this debate is that recent advances in communication have fundamentally changed the nature of what “quality journalism” means. It is no longer enough for an editor to select the stories he believes are most likely to resonate with the audience and assign them to a good writer. Thanks to the power of hypertext and digital multimedia, the canvas of the contemporary digital journalist is as broad as the Internet itself.
To remain relevant, today’s digital media offerings must use the full power of what’s out there to tell stories as effectively and comprehensively as possible, aggregating and contextualising links to both professionally produced and user-generated content. And, rather than being dictated by the instincts of an unseen editor, the decision as to what’s important becomes an iterative, collaborative dialogue between publishers and consumers, with the boundaries between the two frequently blurring and overlapping.
Whether or not it offends traditional media sensibilities, this is what the new world of contemporary journalism looks like. Instead of investing their energies in raging against the end of an old era, media companies and journalists will do well to explore the bracing possibilities of the new one.
This story was first published in The Media magazine.