News aggregators have grown into all shapes and forms. Some are truly helping the producers of original content but others simply amount to mere electronic ransack.
My daily media routine starts on Techmeme. It is a pure aggregator — actually an aggrefilter, as coined by Dan Farber, at the time editor-in-chief of Cnet, who recommended it. This little site combines simple concept and sophisticated execution. As shown in its “Leaderboard”, it crawls a hundred sources and applies a clever algorithm using 600 parameters. More importantly, it adds a human editing layer. In this Read Write Web interview, Techmeme’s founder Gabe Riviera recently discussed his views on the importance of human editing, how it allowed him to fine-tune the his site’s content. The result is one of the most useful ways of monitoring the tech sector. And, since Gabe Riviera also launched Mediagazer last year, I use it to watch the media space. (Another iteration of the concept, Memeorandum, aggregates political news; for reasons I don’t quite understand yet, it doesn’t work as well as the two others.)
Techmeme and Mediagazer benefit the news outlets they mention. Story excerpts are short enough to avoid being self-sufficient and the hierarchical structure works. (Self-sufficient excerpts result in the aggregator not sending back traffic to the source — I’ll come to that later.) These twin sites are definitely among the best of their kind, resulting in a sound six persons business, not the next Google News but doing OK financially.
In fact, in their very own fields, Techmeme are Mediagazer are more useful than Google News. By crawling through so many sources, with the sole help of a powerful (but aging) algorithm, Google News ends up lacking finesse, precision and selectiveness. It’s a pure product of the engineering culture the search giant is built on, where obsessive hardcore binary thinking sweeps away words like “nuance”, “refinement”, “gradation”.
At the other end of the aggregator spectrum, we have The Huffington Post, one of the smartest digital news machine ever and, at the same time, the mother of all news internet impostures.
In France, where true journalism is in a state of exhaustion, everybody wants to make “Un Huffington Post à la Française“. The dream hardly comes from the best and the brightest. No, the fantasy agitates click-freaks building “traffic machines” on the generous losses their investors are willing to put up with. So, in spite of the red ink, why do they yearn for their Huffington Post so much? One word: Numbers. As recalled in Newsonomics story, in one year, the HuffPo doubled its audience. And now, the HuffPo is nibbling at the NYTimes.com’s ankle: 13m unique visitors/month (Nielsen) vs. 19m for the Times. The HuffPo is a privately-held company with abundant funding and therefore does not release financial numbers. Revenues are said to be in the $15m range, and profitability is “near”…, this according to fascinated bloggers who kissed the HuffPo CEO Eric Hippeau’s ring.
Editorially speaking, the HuffPo relies on a high profile commentators, members of Arianna Huffington social and political circle, as well as on an armada of unpaid bloggers (6000) edited by a commando of human cutters & pasters and condensers.
The recipe is simple and extremely efficient: you take a 2600 words Vanity Fair interview of the financial reporter Michael Lewis on the rotten Greek public finances, you squeeze it down to 360 words (that’s down to 14% of the original length), and you have a self-supporting article that perfectly sums up Lewis’ point. This fits the internet era’s snippet culture: unless you nurture a secret passion for Hellenic bonds, you have no need to click and link from the HuffPo back to the original Vanity Fair story.
Still on business topics, the HuffPo is fond of economic professor Nouriel Roubini, the famous doomsayer. Then, when he wrote a 1045 words piece in the Washington Post (here), the HuffPo’s mincing machine squeezed it down to a 410 words piece (a mere 39% reduction). Since the piece dealt with a strong general interest theme, the Payroll Tax Cut, it triggered serious activity among HuffPo readers: 510 comments and 72 Facebook “Like”; this is three times the number of recommendations on the original Post article. I could go on an on with more examples of HuffPo content and traffic hijacking.
Here are the Huffington Post’s “principles”:
— Take an original story available on the internet, preferably outside a paywall.
— Match the subject of the story against a traffic analysis of what readers like on your superblog.
— Process the story according a compression ratio of 15% to 30% (sometimes more); stay as much as possible within an elastic interpretation of “fair use”.
— The result of your editorial meat-processing must absolutely be a self-sufficient entity.
— Always quote and link generously; your fairness and integrity must be unquestionable; linking is no big deal since no one will actually click and go to the original source (your treatment should be designed to prevent going back to the originl content).
— You get it: the reader has to stay in the environment of the Huffington Post, in which he will comment, babble profusely, (I spotted a 12,000 comments on a copyright free video); he will Facebook-share the “piece”, creating further reverberation the HuffPo machine will sell to is advertisers. Comprende?
The original content provider gets screwed? How come a story that cost the original publisher $10,000 or $30,000 to report, edit and produce gets transformed into a mere one-gulp self-sufficient capsule? That’s the internet, baby. If the publisher doesn’t want his stuff to be e-looted, he should put it behind a paywall, or into a smartphone application. (Which is exactly what needs to happen in order to avoid certain death). This is the type of intellectual construct that evokes wet dreams of Gallic HuffPo clones into the mind of people with the journalistic culture of a mollusk.
I will stop short of putting all the blame on the Huffington Post. Its boss, Eric Hippeau, is cleverly taking advantage of traditional publishers’ worst mental features: naïveté mixed with excessive confidence in their peoples’ talent. Plus a reluctance to invest in the indispensable tech wizardry that should be embedded in every digital news outlet.
I said it here many times: the under-investment in technology is publishers’ most dangerous mistake. And the gap is widening: if you have a doubt, compare the growth of the HuffPo to what other big online news outlets achieve. With no weight from the past, superblog-aggregators have been free to integrate the best of the marketing and traffic technologies. They just had to feed the beast with newspapers and magazines on the web that were still stuck with their self-grandeur: “In journalism, we are so f**ing good that people will read our stuff and we’ll monetize it“. No. Sorry, my friend. It just didn’t happened that way. It is the smartest and less scrupulous aggregators who are making money on your back. (OK, the HuffPo is generating a fifth of the NYTimes per reader, but its cost structure is nothing in comparison of a organization that spends $2m or $3m/year to just cover the war in Afghanistan).
The relationship to news aggregation needs to be reconsidered. Publishers of original news (magazines and newspapers mostly) should issue a “thanks” to fair-referrals such as Techmeme and many others like it — and, at the same time, protect themselves from cynical aggregators that will prey on their costly journalistic production.