When aggregators attack: Techmeme’s headline-rewriting is just part of a larger shift

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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

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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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