Society | DOI: 10.1145/2398356.2398365
Just the facts
In repackaging other companies’ news, some news aggregators
are diverting readers and ad dollars, and, critics argue,
undercutting the incentive to spend money on original reporting.
It is an economic and ethical problem without a clear legal fix.
LAst YeAR, siMon DuMenCo, a columnist for Advertising Age, found himself at the center of a minor media maelstrom. A blog post he had written for
AdAge.com went viral, getting picked
up in one form or another by several
other sites, including Techmeme and
the hugely popular Huffington Post.
By now, the topic of his piece (Apple’s
launch of iCloud getting upstaged on
Twitter by the “Weinergate” scandal)
is old news. What remains timely is the
window the incident opened on a big
question for the struggling news business. Do news aggregators—which
include AOL’s Huffington Post, Techmeme, Google News, and the many
other sites that profit from recycling
news stories first reported by others—
help or harm the news organizations
whose material they use?
a Broken Market
PHOtOGRa PH by MICHa El Rub Enst EIn
For many news people, the answer
is obvious. The Wall Street Journal’s
managing editor Robert Thomson has
called aggregators “tech tapeworms
in the intestines of the Internet” and
Bill Keller, the executive editor of The
New York Times, has likened Huffington Post’s practices to Somali piracy.
Whether portraying aggregators as
parasites, pirates, or petty pickpockets, critics make the same basic argument: Aggregators free-ride on the
efforts of others, taking readers and
ad revenue that would otherwise go
to the companies who financed the
labor-intensive work of actually breaking the news. “When the Huffington
Post reproduces much of the article,
even if it gives credit to the Times and
the reporter, they are undermining
the market for the original product,”
explains Joe Mathewson, a professor
at Northwestern University’s Medill
School of Journalism.
arianna Huffington, co-founder, president, and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media
Group, a leading content aggregator.
Business journalist Robert Levine,
the author of a book about the free-rider problem in the culture industry,
puts it more bluntly. “We have a broken market,” he says. “If it’s so easy
to make money aggregating, investment is going to go to aggregators.”
It becomes less profitable than ever
Do news aggregators
help or harm
the news organizations
to fund investigative reporting, for example, or to send journalists overseas.
Dumenco points out that because aggregation is far cheaper than original reporting, aggregators also drive
down rates for advertising, traditionally a major source of newspapers’
revenue. And although some newspapers have set up paywalls to earn subscription dollars, aggregators make it
more difficult to do so successfully,
Levine says, since readers can now
get much the same information for
free elsewhere. This system seems inherently unsustainable and bound to
bankrupt the very content sources on
which aggregators rely.
But defenders of aggregation, most
notably Arianna Huffington, do not
seem to worry. They counter that what
they are doing is “curation,” giving
readers the most interesting stories
from a broad range of news produc-