There’s been a lot of debate about whether a Forbes blog post that excerpted and summarized a New York Times story qualifies as journalism or not — but to some extent that’s a red herring. The only question that matters is whether the reader is served.

The battle between traditional media and the blogosphere over aggregation (or “curation,” if you prefer) continues to rage. In the latest skirmish, Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill got thrown under the bus by many for a recent blog post in which she summarized a New York Times piece about data-mining practices and privacy. According to her critics, Hill “stole” the story from the NYT, along with a lot of web traffic that rightfully belonged to the newspaper. Some argue that this doesn’t deserve to be called “journalism” — but in many ways the eternal debate over what qualifies as journalism is a red herring. The reality is that aggregation and curation are part of the new media ecosystem, and they can add a lot of value whether we like them or not.

As more and more competitors for traditional media outlets emerge — whether they are corporations like The Huffington Post or teenagers in war-torn countries trying to do journalism on the fly, like the 14-year-old profiled in a recent New York Times story — there seems to be a growing obsession with defining what journalism is, and who deserves (or doesn’t deserve) to be called a journalist. Is the man who live-blogged the Osama bin Laden assassination a journalist? Is National Public Radio’s Andy Carvin, who has been using Twitter as a one-man newswire during the Arab Spring, a journalist?

Some mainstream journalists would answer no to both of those questions, but by doing so they miss the larger point, which is that in both cases, information is provided that increases our knowledge about an important topic. Isn’t that a pretty good definition of journalism, not whether someone made a phone call or has a specific degree, or whether they travelled to a war zone or not? In some cases, as journalist Rob Pegoraro noted, smart curation may actually serve that goal better than so-called “original reporting.”

The question that matters is whether it serves the reader

During a debate on Twitter about Hill’s post and whether it qualifies as journalism or not, Jonathan Stray — the interactive technology editor for the Associated Press — raised a good point when he asked: “Do we judge capital-J Journalism by how much original reporting it has, or how well the product serves the users?” If raising awareness about privacy infractions and creepy data-mining practices is valuable, then Hill’s post served that purpose, because it probably got a lot of readers who might never have seen the NYT piece, or never have made it all the way through the 6,700-word original.

So one perspective is that Hill “stole” the NYT story in a shameless attempt to get pageviews from someone else’s work — and the other is that she highlighted an important issue within that story in a very readable way, and also directed a lot of traffic to the original that might never have gone there without her post. The Huffington Post gets criticized for doing something similar, which mainstream outlets criticize as theft, but in some cases (although not all, I will admit) the HuffPo version is actually better than the original, in the sense that it is more useful or adds more information.

A former colleague, Ottawa Citizen online editor Melanie Coulson, argued in a post that what Hill did isn’t journalism, it’s just aggregation. And in an interview with media blogger Jim Romenesko, the author of the NYT piece that Hill excerpted said that he was perfectly fine with Hill doing what she did if it brought more attention to the issue and to his piece, but noted that “every hour spent summarizing is an hour not spent reporting.”

This is a false dichotomy in many ways. Having followed Hill’s blog at Forbes, I know that she often does original reporting, as well as the kind of post she did with the NYT piece. Both arguably have value for readers, which theoretically should be the primary goal. Many journalists like to focus on sexier pursuits like foreign reporting and investigative stories, but the reality is that much of what we call journalism is very different. In the end, it has to serve the reader — either by informing them or entertaining them, or some combination of the two. That’s not something to be ashamed of.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Yan Arief Purwanto and jphilipg.

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  1. Great analysis! Lawyers and courts have struggled for years to define who is a journalist for the purpose of determining whether a person is entitled to protection under a state shield law or a common law reporters privilege to protect confidential sources. This effort, like trying to define “journalism” is misguided. As you cogently note, what matters the most is not “who” is disseminating the information, but whether the information “serves the reader.” In Utah, where I practice law, the Utah Supreme Court has recognized a “reporters privilege” by Court Rule. http://www.utcourts.gov/resources/rules/ure/URE0509.htm. Extending the protection of the rule wisely focuses not on who, but on the purpose of the information. The rule protects “News Reporter” who is broadly defined as any “…person gathering information for the primary purpose of disseminating news to the public…”. This definition is consistent with your thesis. Kash Hill’s reporting, aggregation, curation (or however one wishes to label it) disseminated useful information to readers. She made no effort to pass off the information as hers and she contributed signifcantly to the understanding of an important issue. I, for one, laud Ms Hill and others like her and say bring it on. You say she was “thrown under the bus” by some of her critics. Perhaps, but I suspect when all the niose dies down, most people will conclude she actualy enhanced her “chops” as an astute commentator on contemporary privacy issues.

    1. Thanks, Randy — those are some great points. Appreciate the comment.

  2. Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.

  3. lexoutsidethelines Wednesday, February 22, 2012

    Reblogged this on lexoutsidethelines.

  4. Great analysis. Curation, summation and aggregation are all firms of modern, online journalism if they deliver the news in a timely, relevant and interesting manner.

    Global Comms /PR at Dell
    Corp Social Media Strategist

  5. Mathew, thanks for analysis! Susan: Curation is nothing new or modern, Time Magazine started with heavily curated content in 1923.
    The recent developments with curators such as Buzzfeed hiring “real” journalists might imply that you have to have both curated and original content to keep your readers informed.

    1. Great point, Mikko.

  6. I agree that “is this journalism?” is the wrong question here, and I think it is pretty much always the wrong question. Curation and aggregation are valuable services and are getting more so as the world generates more and more media.

    I want to point out, however, that Andy Carvin does a lot more than just curate and aggregate. One of the most interesting aspects of his work on Twitter is the way he organizes his followers as an investigative team to probe dubious information. A notable example is the unmasking of alleged Syrian lesbian blogger Gay Girl in Damascus as the hoax of a straight American man, as documented here: http://storify.com/acarvin/the-gay-girl-in-damascus-that-wasnt. Curation and aggregation isn’t just rewriting; it’s establishing accuracy and can sometimes evolve into full-blown investigation. Arguing over who owns stories only leads to a dead end and takes us away from strengthening our shared knowledge, which should always be the goal.

    1. You are quite right, Trish — Andy does much more than just curation and aggregation. How he does real-time verification is a model for others. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Aggregation and curation are two very different things. Curation brings a point of view and captures the essence. More in my post: http://bit.ly/curatetocreate Curating content to create content online is how people want to receive information. And as your post states, it serves the purpose of communicating the “idea” which otherwise might not have been read!

  8. Every daily newspaper I ever worked at started the day with stories clipped from other newspapers. We usually called the sources cited and asked if the story was accurate; sometimes we’d get more info, sometimes not. But it was as routine as the morning visit to the cop shop and the calls to each fire department , etc.

    A more salient question is this: Has journalism caught up with what is known of the physical world, namely the Uncertainty Principle? We actually change matter by choosing what to study — is it a particle or a wave? Is it news or not? Journalists do not yet fathom the depths of their responsibility. This failure corrupts journalism and in the US is the primary reason voters do not know about most political aspirants, only the money backed dullards whose motions are reported by journalists who have no idea that are not “reporting” the news but creating it. Hell of a pickle.

  9. Stephen Strauss Thursday, February 23, 2012

    I think there should be a new category of writing called meta-journalism.
    That’s because question of “what is journalism” has been overtaken on the internet by the reality that journalists can now show reader/listener/views the process which led to their final product. That process includes seeing things written/recorded by others and then rewriting or re-recording them a la Hill. It is the reality of doing interviews and leaving out most of what was said. It is the narrative imperative of ignoring some things that people tell you that don’t fit in with the story thesis you have in your mind, or an editor has in his or her mind. It is how much the limitation of space on the printed page or time on radio and television forces journalists to amputate what they had learned. It is the difficult process of outing liars a la Tom McMaster
    Today what one can do is put up everything – all the interviews, all the background material, the longer/better un-edited versions – and in so doing present a story which is about the process of journalism not simply its literary/spoken/visual end product. That’s what the lesbian Syrian girl investigation reveals, and what in a different way the Hill piece showed us. The rise of the possibility of meta-journalism raises the question how much of the process do readers/viewers/listeners want to see versus how much of the illusion that what the redacted/slimmed down/narrative driven article/broadcast/blog presents is – there is no other word for it – true.
    I don’t know the answer to this but will point out technology is creating process metaphysics in other domains. David Hockney’s drawings and revisions on his iPad transforms his art into the process of creating his art. See, a not very good example at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3GiUeBGQnk.
    At the end of the day you get to see not just what is there but what isn’t there.
    Just as you do in meta-journalism.

  10. … “Information is provided that increases our knowledge about an important topic. Isn’t that a pretty good definition of journalism?”

    No, that’s a pretty good definition of “encyclopedia.”

    Defining terms too broadly only waters them down. In my j-school, we spent 90 percent of our time learning how to think analytically, not just report, because mere reporting was the simple part. Curation, by itself, does not provide much analysis; it’s more like scrapbooking. There has to be more than just cutting and pasting of information for the end result to be “journalism.” (Even Andy Carvin said at last year’s SPJ conference that he didn’t consider himself a journalist in the usual sense, but also didn’t know exactly what to call himself.)

    I agree with you that the times and technology are reshaping the way we gather news. But I don’t agree with your insistence that the elements of traditional journalism have lost their place.

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