The seven steps to a successful aggregation strategy for your news organization

Media have changed in ways that now make aggregation essential to the mission of almost any news organization.

Readers face an abundant and growing volume of news and news sources. Most cities now have independent news websites, forums and blogs covering neighborhoods and particular topics. Other professional news outlets are stepping up their output.

Someone has to make sense of it. Someone has to look beyond his own newsroom and give readers a comprehensive digest. The news organization that gets that right will become readers’ first and most frequent stop.

This does not diminish the great value of your own original journalism. Aggregation is not a replacement for contributing your own reporting on the issues most important to your audience. Adding aggregation can deliver more information in more depth and draw a larger audience to your original pieces.

Here are the seven things you’ll need to decide in order to design a smart aggregation strategy and make your website a central hub of community information and discussion.

1. Automated or human-driven?

The easiest way to get into aggregation may simply be to create an automated feed of the latest headlines from other news sources. That brings new information to your site and doesn’t add any workload.

But it’s far more useful to involve human editors if you can.

You create the greatest value not simply by aggregating other sources of information, but by aggregating the right information for your audience. It’s very difficult to do that well without human editorial judgment.

Techmeme is powered by algorithms and software, but also human editors.

The popular technology news aggregator Techmeme originally was operated by a computer algorithm that determined the most popular tech stories. But in 2008 human editors were hired to help. “Automation does indeed bring a lot to the table — humans can’t possibly discover and organize news as fast as computers can. But too often the lack of real intelligence leads to really unintelligent results,” Gabe Rivera, founder of the site, wrote.

2. When and where will you post aggregated items?

There are two ways to approach this: Mix individual aggregated items in with your other news reports, or create a separate blog or other space dedicated to external content.

You won’t find aggregated content throughout nytimes.com, but The New York Times has created a space for it. The Lede blog “remixes national and international news, adding information gleaned from the Web or gathered through original reporting to … draw readers in to the global conversation about the news taking place online.”

The Lede blog curates top news on the Web.

A Lede post on Monday about the Amtrak train crash in Nevada rounds up information from the Associated Press, an ABC Nightline YouTube video, the Reno Gazette-Journal and the Contra Costa Times, along with its own reporting, in a comprehensive narrative. This is probably the easiest way for a news organization to begin aggregating.

An integrated approach turns your website into a portal, with all of your original and aggregated content side-by-side, organized by topics and locations but not discriminating by source. This was the approach we took at the Washington, D.C.-area news site TBD.com (my previous job), where headlines on any given page linked to our stories and to aggregated news.

The advantage: It’s a more comprehensive package of all available news. The disadvantage: Your own unique content loses some prominence, and this approach may require tweaking your content management system.

3. Choose what to aggregate.

Valuable aggregation does two things well: It discovers relevant news stories and highlights the most relevant parts of those stories.

The most valuable sources to aggregate are ones your audience may not otherwise read. Think of news sources that may be smaller or less widely read than yours, or that cover a different topic or geography. Try to identify sources whose coverage is tangential to yours — close enough to be relevant once in a while, but not so similar that your readers probably read it already.

How can you do this? The best tools are to subscribe to RSS feeds for key sites and then cast a wider net by subscribing to Google News Alerts for important keywords. It’s also wise to train your whole newsroom on what you want to aggregate, because your reporters and editors will come across good news items in the course of their work.

4. Should you simply link or summarize?

This may be the most debated aspect of aggregation strategy.

Aggregation that sends readers directly to the original piece is fairly uncontroversial. This is the style of Google News, Techmeme and BreakingNews.com. (Some people do criticize these services for showing headlines and teasers, which may convey enough information for some readers.) Some news organizations now actually try to get these types of sites to link to their stories.

More controversial is the style of The Huffington Post, which is often criticized for summarizing aggregated stories to the point where there’s little reason to read the original version. If you take this approach, the business advantage is that more readers spend more time previewing, sharing and discussing the content on your site instead of the original site.

I believe there is a way to do summary-style aggregation in a way that serves readers and the content sources. (We at Poynter.org try to follow these principles in our own aggregation for the Romenesko blog.) The key is to link prominently to the original source and to add value, not just copy from the original.

  • Put the spotlight on the news that’s most relevant to your audience. Pull out the information that your audience will find most interesting, and state it directly.
  • Quote or summarize only what is necessary to describe the news. Leave details to the original story. This helps keep you within the bounds of fair use and gives readers a reason to visit the original post.
  • Use your own knowledge to include more context or link to related stories.

5. How do you decide among multiple sources?

For some stories, there will be several sources you could choose to aggregate. You should think through in advance how to handle this. Go with the first story? Go with the most complete story?

If each contains some unique information, the best option would be to link to all of them from one place. It’s best to link within the story text in a way that the reader knows what each source is contributing.

6. How can you empower your aggregation sources?

Sites you aggregate from will start to notice that you’re sending them traffic. Some of those sites may start to tip you off when they have a story that could interest your audience.

You can enable this by designating an email address or a staff person to receive tips.

Or you can use a more technical system. BreakingNews.com, a leading Web and Twitter aggregator of breaking news, just launched a new collaboration with more than 70 news websites that enables the sites to alert the BreakingNews staff to their stories by including #breakingnews or @breakingnews in their tweets.

BreakingNews takes tips from sites that use the #breakingnews hashtag in their tweets. This one it retweeted.

Cory Bergman, director of BreakingNews (and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board), said news orgs complained that they would break a story only to see @BreakingNews send a link to a wire story to its 2.7 million Twitter followers.

“I come from the local news world. … I remember the frustrations of breaking a big story and then getting zero national distribution for it,” Bergman told me. “That’s a common frustration across local news today.”

They decided to build a system to let local news organizations “put a social stake in the ground that they broke that story.”

When you start aggregating, your news organization can reach out to other sources and turn them into collaborators.

7. How can you empower your users?

Once you begin a good aggregation strategy, your site will attract loyal users who appreciate it. Some of them will want to help.

If you have the development resources to customize your site, you can add features to enable users to suggest stories to aggregate or vote for which ones should be featured prominently.

This is a good point to end on because the users are what aggregation strategy is all about. Successful aggregation casts aside newsrooms’ competitive instincts and gives readers the best possible news to read from any source.

This makes sense for your news company because the major economic value in the news business is not in the content itself; it’s in the reader relationship. Newspapers always published their own local news, of course, but they also published wire news, obituaries, coupons, sports scores and crossword puzzles — features that helped to build reader relationships. Relationships create opportunities for advertising and new revenue-generating services.

By aggregating the work of others alongside your own, you place the readers’ interests ahead of your own competitive pride. You build a stronger reader relationship than other sites, and you earn loyalty and trust that can pay off in real dollars.

To learn more about aggregation strategy, read Julie Moos’ article, “The obligatory and the original: 3 things I learned from our week as Romenesko.”

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