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Summary:

Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera has announced that the technology-news aggregator will begin rewriting headlines on the links it posts — a small change, but one that also illustrates how much the balance of power in media is shifting.

Techmeme, the technology-news aggregator run by Gabe Rivera, doesn’t announce changes to its editorial process that often, but when it does they are usually interesting — like the time the site launched “native advertising,” long before it became a topic of conversation in the media-sphere, or when Rivera announced that human editors are as important as algorithms (which, for those who don’t know him, is quite an admission). Now, the site has said it is going to start rewriting headlines for the posts that it aggregates.

As with most of his other announcements, this one is interesting in part because of what Rivera says, but also because of what he doesn’t say. What he does say is that many of the headlines that publishers put on their content don’t suit the site’s purpose, which is to communicate as much useful information as possible, as quickly and efficiently as possible — and so he and his team of editors are going to rewrite them in order to fix that problem.

Techmeme is getting an editorial voice

But if you continue beyond just the critique of modern headline writing — which is well worth a read, because it has a lot of truth to it — you get to one of the more interesting parts of the change, which is that Techmeme isn’t going to just rewrite headlines to make them clearer or more explanatory, but is also going to inject some editorializing as well. As Rivera puts it:

“While most of the headlines we write will elevate details present in the story, we may on occasion even use a headline we write to challenge, correct, refute, or even undermine what we’re linking to, if we feel that gets our readers closer to the truth as we see it.”

Although Rivera downplays it somewhat in his post, this is actually a fairly significant change. Previously, critics of the site have muttered to themselves about Techmeme’s biases and how it allegedly preferred certain sites or writers over others, but all they had were unspoken signals like the placement of stories, which they had to read like tea leaves. Now, Techmeme will be making it obvious which headlines it either agrees with or wants to question — in other words, it will have an editorial voice, however small.

The balance of power continues to shift

matt-drudge-o

As Rivera notes, rewriting headlines isn’t unheard of for an aggregator: the venerable Drudge Report has been doing much the same thing for years (although it also routinely gets criticized for doing so). But for me at least, this is just a small part of a much larger ongoing transformation in the way the media industry works, something we and others have been writing about for some time — namely, the rise of aggregators and middlemen, and the shifting balance of power between them and content creators.

To take just one example, a recent Pew study found that a large proportion of news consumers now get their information from third-party sites like Google News and other aggregators — and in many cases readers don’t even remember what the name or affiliation of the site was where the content originated. And it isn’t just traditional news aggregators that are contributing to this phenomenon, but also services like Twitter and Facebook, where a recommendation or a link with 140 characters of commentary can send a flood of traffic.

Rivera notes in his post that he is only going to rewrite headlines, and has no intention of writing his own stories as well — but even the fact that he has to say that shows how much the ground has shifted already. And in many ways, Techmeme still has a lot of power when it comes to influencing where people go for their news, and all it has to do is write a few words. Welcome to the new media landscape, and good luck with your headlines.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Abysmim and AP Images

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  1. Techmeme aggregates all the different viewpoints of the same story. So when they link to the story they would like the headline to emphasize what that story carries which is different from other stories. The headline story is that story itself. This change was long time coming.

  2. How nice of the loafing leeches to get off their butts and do a bit of work. IT’s about time. Maybe one day they’ll try actually writing a story and then they might understand why real journalists hate them so.

  3. Why not penalise articles that have misleading headlines by demoting them in his results? Does he have a complaints process if his headlines are incorrect?

  4. As you said, others like HuffPo, Drudge, Gawker, etc.. have been doing it for a while, and I’m starting to do this on Startup Management.

    Next, they’ll let us post comments maybe, like HackerNews?

  5. Who is the “we” in his comment “…as we see it”. It important to know who is deciding? Intern? Domain expert? Someone with experience?

  6. Reblogged this on Tim Chambers and commented:
    Good read on these trends in news aggregation….

  7. Continuing to dilute what made Techmeme formerly a must-see daily site.

    Sad.

    1. Unlingua

      Would you be so kind to elaborate your thoughts.

  8. In some ways it surprises me that this has taken so long in the digital world. Most of our newspapers have been aggregating stories from around the world while placing a local headline on them.

    As our traditional newspapers decline, and our TV news favors entertainment over information, it is only logical that another medium rises to serve the need of communicating the actual news with multiple perspecitves and an editorial voice.

    I suspect there will come to be many editorial voices doing the same in different ways over time. Just wait until all the other aggregators add curation layers. Like all things changed by technology it may be messy while we learn how to optimise, but will deliver a new norm.

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