August 20, 2017

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The News Aggregator-Borg: Resistance is Futile

The News Aggregator-Borg: Resistance is Futile

Mainstream media publishers have been uneasy with, and even openly hostile at, sites that aggregate content, from Gawker to Google. Publishers say that the aggregators are stealing their business and “fair use” has been used quite unfairly.

In response to aggressive, smart aggregators, the Associated Press has started charging for quoting or using as few as five words from its content. The Washington Post fired a shot at Gawker for quoting a bit liberally from a Post story (you can read the Gawker-Post squabble here). Publishers in Europe signed a declaration (aimed at Google) that said the publishers “no longer wish to be forced to give away property without having granted permission.” And Robert Thomson, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal was quoted in the Australian saying, “‘Companies that aggregate mainstream media content without paying a fee are the parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet’ and will soon be challenged.” Ouch.

The flip side of aggregation, of course, is that it drives traffic to the originating Web sites. Tons of traffic. In fact, the Washington Post admitted that the top two referring sites to the very story that it said was stolen were from the Huffington Post (an aggregator) and Gawker.

Google, Yahoo, Bing, the Huffington Post, Fark, the Drudge Report and many others drive huge chunks of traffic to mainstream media sites. Would it be smart to cut off this traffic flow in the name of protecting content? I’ll leave that to the publishers to decide.

In the meantime, I think journalists on the front lines should follow the old adage: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Readers go to aggregators such as Huffington Post, the Drudge Report and Gawker because edgy, breezy writing works well on the Web (especially in blog format), and aggressive, smart aggregation of content is a good thing – at least for the aggregator and the reader, and arguably for everyone.

The New York Times saw the value of curating the news when it launched its “Extra” home page in December. On this “Extra” front page, the Times publishes headlines (with links) to related content from external sites. It’s a bold move, though made slightly less bold by hiding the “Extra” home page behind a little tab at the top of the regular home page. Other news sites have been aggregating news on their home pages as well, including SFGate.com, which plays the aggregated content much more prominently. These efforts signal to the audience that they’re getting a more complete picture of the news. When smart editors pick interesting stories from a variety of sources, they’re saving Internet news-savvy readers time that they would have spent searching the Web. That’s a good way to make your home page a top destination.

Besides aggregating (or curating) headlines, some sharp mainstream media bloggers have been writing roundup-style blogs that pull from various sources. A good example of that is at my own paper, the Austin American-Statesman, where state government reporter Jason Embry writes a highly successful blog called First Reading. Embry rounds up everything he can find that has to do with his beat into a casual conversation with his readers. The combination has made his blog a must-read staple for Austin politicos.

Journalists should also do some real-time aggregation through social media (by posting links on their own Twitter accounts to relevant information from many sources). Web producers could aggregate easily using Publish2, which is a tool that streamlines curation and publication of information (they even have a new tool for curating and publishing tweets).

When big news happens, curating information from any and all sources, from Twitter to Facebook to the competing TV station, just makes reports stronger and more relevant. An example of the power of curation of news was on display during the the Mumbai attacks and the Iran election chaos. CNN stood out for curating material from social media sites. Other journalists should take note. What looked like somewhat silly experimentation at first has turned out to be smart reporting by CNN during crucial news events.

Publishers are facing an uphill battle against those who aggregate their material. In the meantime, journalists on the ground level should be learning from those very aggregators.

Robert Quigley is the social media editor for the Austin American-Statesman. He also blogs for OldMedianewtricks.com and Knight Pulse.

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