Updated: If you’re a traditional journalist, or someone who works for a traditional media outlet, the easiest way to cast aspersions at a digital media entity is to use the A word: that is, “aggregation.” New York Times executive editor Bill Keller stayed true to form in a piece he wrote for his newspaper Thursday, in which he categorized The Huffington Post and other unnamed online media outlets as pirates, who are in the business of “counterfeiting” content rather than engaging in “real” journalism. In only a few paragraphs, the NYT editor managed to say volumes about how little he understands where media is, or where it is going.
Keller’s piece starts out as a humble discussion of his status as the 50th most powerful person in the world (according to Forbes magazine) and how he thinks this is absurd, since he just runs a newspaper. But it quickly becomes a complaint about how members of the media — and assorted “flocks of media oxpeckers who ride the backs of pachyderms, feeding on ticks,” as well as professional pundits such as Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen — spend too much time talking about media in the abstract instead of doing it.
Then he launches into an attack on aggregators, saying the media industry has “bestowed our highest honor — market valuation — not on those who labor over the making of original journalism but on aggregation,” an obvious reference to the $315-million acquisition of the Huffington Post by AOL.
And what does the term aggregation mean? That seems to depend on who does it. The NYT editor says aggregation can mean “smart people sharing their reading lists, plugging one another into the bounty of the information universe,” and then he admits this “kind of describes what I do as an editor.” So aggregation is journalism then? But wait — Keller goes on to say that aggregation often amounts to:
[T]aking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site 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.
This is where he calls out the Huffington Post, whose founder is “the queen of aggregation,” having discovered that “if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.” The NYT editor goes on to say that while AOL called the acquisition of Huffington Post a key part of its content strategy, buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is “like a company announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.” (Update: Arianna Huffington has posted a response to Keller’s piece at her site).
Keller seems to be missing the point that all media — both online and offline — is, to some extent, about aggregation. (He’s not the only one; the New Republic had a similarly wrong-headed piece about it recently). Even newspapers aggregate content from newswires and occasionally rewrite it to make it their own. Yes, they pay those newswires for the privilege, and so does the Huffington Post. The difference is that it pays in attention, which it directs back to the original source, just as Google pays with links when it aggregates content at Google News. According to a Huffington Post staffer, news websites actually beg the site to aggregate their content, since it gets more traffic.
Aggregation is a term that covers a wide variety of behavior, some of it nefarious and much of it not. To take just one example, look at what Andy Carvin of National Public Radio has been doing by pulling in and republishing Twitter posts from hundreds of different people — both individuals and journalists, including New York Times writer Nick Kristof — as a way of covering the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Is that aggregation? Sure it is (or “curation,” as some prefer to call it). Is Carvin not taking reports from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications and republishing them? Of course he is. But he’s also engaged in a very real form of 21st-century journalism. And maybe if Bill Keller spent a little more time trying to understand how aggregation works instead of railing against it, the New York Times would be a little further ahead in this new media game, instead of playing catch-up with Arianna Huffington.