Business Insider vs. Digiday: One man’s aggregation is another man’s traffic hijacking

Pickpocket

Plagiarism. Copyright infringement. Traffic hijacking. These are all terms publishers like to use when someone excerpts their content without permission, whether it’s Google News or The Huffington Post. Some digital publishers have different words for it, however: they prefer to call it curation, or aggregation, or just old-fashioned blogging. The latest iteration of this long-standing debate came on Tuesday, when a piece at Digiday about rampant aggregation triggered a Twitter back-and-forth between editor Brian Morrissey and Business Insider founder Henry Blodget.

In his post at Digiday, entitled “Surviving the Media Aggregation Economy,” Morrissey argues that we are trapped in a digital-media environment based on boosting pageviews to draw more advertising, and that this has “taken publishers hostage.” Publishers like Business Insider, he says, have taken this approach to its logical conclusion and generate a lot of their revenue by repurposing content created by others. In one case, Business Insider posted a screenshot of a Digiday post along with a paragraph lifted from the original, and put a new headline on it. Says Morrissey:

“The result: It generated 224 pageviews for the Digiday story. Along the way, BI banked another 1,500-plus pageviews — and that many ‘welcome ad’ impressions along with multiple banners and a ‘native’ video ad. Meanwhile, Digiday’s original post — thought up and executed by our staff — got 2,500 pageviews. Is this a fair trade?”

It’s more efficient to aggregate than create

Morrissey goes on to note that Blodget likes to brag about how efficient his publishing platform is, and how his site gets an average of 180,000 pageviews per day per employee — orders of magnitude larger than many traditional media players such as the New York Times or Bloomberg. But the Digiday editor says much of this efficiency is driven by Business Insider’s repurposing of content created by others (Note: We’re going to be discussing alternate forms of monetization for content at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17). As Morrissey puts it in his post:

“Based on my experience, I can’t help but wonder if BI’s “efficiency” is bought at the expense of others. It’s like European countries bragging about low defense spending while relying on the U.S. to do the heavy lifting through NATO. It’s easy to be efficient when you draft off others.”

The debate expanded to Twitter when Blodget responded to Morrissey’s complaint, and suggested that if the Digiday editor was concerned about the screenshot of the images that appeared in the original, Business Insider would be happy to take them out. But Morrissey said his point was that the whole approach is wrong:

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Business Insider argues Digiday should be grateful

Blodget argued that publishers like Digiday should be interested in exposing their content to as many different readers and potential readers as possible, and therefore Morrissey should be glad that Business Insider excerpted the post and included a link — something the Business Insider founder compared to a story that appears at Google News, or to the New York Times running a story based on a Wall Street Journal scoop:

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Morrissey said that he was happy to have sites link to his content, provided they drove readers in substantial enough numbers, and that he was a big fan of the aggregation site Mediagazer as well as LinkedIn’s content portal. But in his post he noted that Business Insider had gotten close to 100,000 pageviews from content “aggregated” from Digiday, while the latter got a relatively minuscule 14,000 pageviews from Business Insider’s links.

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Aggregation is a reality, whether we like it or not

It’s probably fair to say that versions of this debate have been going on for almost as long as the web has been around: questions about “link juice” and the “link economy,” in which traffic driven by an aggregator is supposed to make up for the alleged insult of excerpting their content, and so on. The Huffington Post used to be the poster child for what some have called “over-aggregation,” but now that mantle seems to have passed to Business Insider. And some believe that regardless of whether or not such behavior is legal or permitted under copyright law, it is unethical:

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As I’ve tried to point out before, aggregation or curation is a fact of life in the digital age — just as record companies have had to learn to live with rampant downloading and sharing of music, publishers of all kinds are trying to get used to the idea that their content is no longer under their control. In some cases, aggregation fulfills a useful function, as it did in one notorious case involving a Forbes post by Kashmir Hill that was based on a New York Times feature. In other cases, the usefulness is debatable.

As Morrissey points out in his piece, until the financing model for online media involves something other than pure pageview-driven advertising revenue, aggregation is unlikely to stop. The only protection is to have content whose value can’t be summed up in a screenshot or a paragraph excerpt, and a relationship with your readers that is based on more than just how many pageviews you can generate. (Note: There’s a Storify of Blodget and Morrissey’s full conversation here).

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Zurijeta

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