The aggregator’s dilemma: How do you fairly serve your readers & the sources you rely on?

When you aggregate content, what obligation do you have to the original source — and to readers?

I asked myself this question after seeing how people reacted to the events surrounding Jim Romenesko’s departure from Poynter, and decided to look into it. As it turns out, a lot of news sites have developed strategies for aggregating but are still figuring out how to serve readers without undermining original content providers. I talked about this challenge with several aggregators and asked for their thoughts on how voice, analysis and editorial judgment factor into aggregation.

Josh Voorhees, editor of The Slatest, said his biggest challenge is giving readers enough information to understand a story without giving it all away.

“I haven’t found a single strategy that is best at getting readers to click through on all the stories,” Voorhees told me. “You’re trying to be as clear and concise as possible with your aggregation so that you’re providing a service to your reader — that is, providing them with the most important info that they need. But, ultimately if you’re too successful, you run the risk of denying the original reporters the clicks that they rightfully deserve. It’s a tough line to toe” and it’s “at the center of the aggregator’s dilemma.”

Respecting enterprise work

When possible, Voorhees leads his sentences with attributions so that it’s clear up-front where the information is coming from. And he avoids aggregating what he calls “conceptual scoops” — enterprise stories that news sites have done a lot of original reporting for. LastFriday, for instance, Voorhees decided against aggregating a Politico story about how Newt Gingrich’s surge was putting his campaign infrastructure under increased stress.

“The entire thing is based on the reporters (in this case Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman) connecting the dots between information that is out there and information they dug up themselves, and then crafting their own narrative and analysis to boot,” said Voorhees, a former energy reporter for Politico. “It would take a very careful hand to aggregate this story in a way that is fair to the Burns and Haberman.”

Some journalists have accused aggregators of cherry-picking scoops and not giving readers an incentive to visit the original source. Reuters’ Ryan McCarthy, for instance, recently criticized the way Business Insider aggregated an Associated Press story about new census data.

“The AP summarizes new Census data, which can be found here, talks to economists and provides very valuable analysis of what this new data says about our economy,” McCarthy wrote. “Very little of this is readily apparent from the Census news releases, by the way. The AP reporter, Hope Yen, did the hard journalistic work of sussing out these figures.”

Voorhees said some conceptual scoops are so good they start to drive the news cycle, in which case they need to be aggregated. Once that happens, the story becomes larger than the scoop itself.

Relying on multiple sources, neutral voice

Since its redesign in April, The Slatest — which averages 3 million monthly page views — has been running longer aggregated posts that include a variety of sources. Voorhees said traffic has increased since the redesign — in part, he thinks, because the compilation of multiple sources is a “big draw” for readers.

Having a multitude of sources, Voorhees said, adds value to aggregated posts without taking too much away from the original source. He noted that he tries not to add much voice or character to his posts because he doesn’t want to drive attention away from the stories he’s aggregating.

The Week tries to maintain a neutral voice, too. Its aggregated posts aren’t bylined, and they don’t include original reporting, analysis or thoughts from the aggregators.

“We want to put the emphasis on the voices of the original sources, not our individual voices,” said Dale Hrabi, TheWeek.com’s editorial director. “The Week’s writers and editors deliberately disappear because we view what we do as a service to readers, not a performance by ourselves. The pieces have a house style which is intentionally neutral.”

Similar to The Slatest, The Week offers multiple perspectives on an issue and tries to select sources that will offer distinct talking points on news that’s generating debate. The site, which MediaVanguard recently nominated as the “Best Aggregator,” makes it easy for readers to click through to the original source. In its opinion round-ups, The Week includes attributions and headlines that function as links to original sources. It also lists the names of all the sources it has drawn from, “which reinforces right from the start that the reader is being presented with aggregation.”

If The Week is singling out a column, it includes a short excerpt (usually a single paragraph), followed by a clickable line of text that says: “Read the entire story at [name of a source].” Adding this line, rather than simply including a link within the paragraph, gives readers an added incentive to read the original story.

The print and online versions of The Week are similar content-wise, but the sourcing is a bit different. It’s much easier to prompt people to read the original source, Hrabi said, if you provide them with a link as opposed to just static text.

Less is more (traffic)

Techmeme takes a different approach from The Week and The Slatest. Rather than pulling in multiple perspectives, it provides the headline of a story (with a link) and one quote from it. Techmeme Founder Gabe Rivera said publishers have told him they like this approach because they think the brevity of the posts increases the likelihood that people will click through to the original story to find out more. Neither he nor any of the people I talked with for this story said they track outbound traffic.

Some journalists, though, have taken note of which aggregators bring them traffic. AdAge’s Simon Demunco recently found that Techmeme drove 746 page views to one of his AdAge stories. The Huffington Post, which typically publishes meatier posts, drove just 57 page views. (Depending on who you are, you might not care if an aggregator drives traffic to your site.)

Some aggregators add value to aggregated posts by providing analysis, context and multiple perspectives. Sites that take a more minimalistic approach, Rivera said, show value in other ways — specifically in what posts do and don’t show up, and when they show up. Techmeme also ranks stories in order of importance, which gives the aggregation a sense of hierarchy.

Aggregation fills coverage gaps, filters

Jim Roberts, assistant managing editor of The New York Times, said the value of aggregation is two-fold.

“While we have a talented and deep staff of primary news reporters, we can’t be everywhere and can’t see everything, so aggregation in some ways helps fill in the gaps,” he told me. “Equally important, if not more so, is the value that we try to provide in pointing readers to useful material from other news sites, from social media from blogs and information sources in between.”

Aggregated blogs, which can be big traffic drivers, make it easier for readers to filter news and information.

“Our trademark Cheat Sheet is still one of the biggest drivers of our traffic and one reason so many visitors come back multiple times a day,” said Daily Beast Executive Editor Jane Spencer. “Nobody, of course, has time to read four newspapers and 18 blogs before work, so the idea of the Cheat Sheet is that we scour the Web and ruthlessly sift, sort and curate the most interesting stories from the overwhelming flood of options.”

The Daily Beast’s aggregated content, Spencer said via email, is intended to drive people toward other sites’ content — not away from it. The idea behind The Daily Beast’s “The Week’s Best Reads” for instance, “is not to summarize a New Yorker story so you don’t have to read it, but to direct readers to absolute must-read pieces in magazines.”

The Huffington Post has a similar goal — “to point to the best content available on the Web,” said spokesperson Mario Ruiz. Readers, he said, see the site’s aggregators as “trusted gatekeepers who separate the chafe from the wheat to find the important nuggets — or the incredibly fun and entertaining ones. They trust us and want us to show them what the need to know — and to also link them directly to sources.”

Some have accused The Huffington Post of burying links and not giving readers enough of an incentive to read original sources of content. The site typically denies these accusations, but did suspend a writer earlier this year for over-aggregating.

“Our editorial approach is that when excerpting a story, we should only offer enough of it to give readers a sense of the story and the ability to comment on it, without removing the incentive to go to the original source to read more,” Ruiz said via email. “We are committed to curating in a way to brings extra value to the reader while honoring — and promoting — the work and creative ideas of the original source.”

Former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller is among The Huffington Post’s critics. He thinks there’s a place for aggregation, but that publishers have to be smart about it.

“Readers want, and are entitled to, not only our original reporting and thinking, but our best take on what we are reading and watching,” he said via email, noting that the Times’ Lede blog was created as a “smart aggregation device” that pulls together the Times’ coverage with other news coverage. “People come to The Times for judgement (of what’s true what’s important, what it seems to mean) and aggregation is just applying our judgement to a broader universe of information.”

But at some point, he said, aggregation can become stealing.

“If you excerpt or summarize at such length that you eliminate any incentive for the reader to actually go to the original source (where the traffic can be monetized), that is theft,” he said. “There is, of course, lots of interpretation as to where that point lies.”

The ethics of aggregation

Poynter’s Kelly McBride said there seem to be three schools of thought regarding the ethics of aggregation: Less is more, more is better, and value-added. Some aggregators stay within one school, while others move among all three.

“You can see the ethics evolving over the last two or three years, but they are not completely evolved. As a loosely affiliated group of practitioners, we clearly don’t agree on which approach is most appropriate in which situation,” McBride told me. “I think in three-five years, we will have more fully developed language to describe different types of aggregation, and that language will lead to a better relationship between aggregators and their sources, as well as more transparency for the audience. But until then we will keep muddling through.”

Washington Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti thinks that less is more. “If you aggregate a paragraph or a headline, to me that seems like a fairly acceptable level of aggregation because people can click through to the original site,” Narisetti said in a phone interview. “If you’re doing anything more than that, you’re taking some liberties.”

Narisetti set up an internal “Copycat” email address that staffers can use to alert him and the Post’s lawyers when they think someone has over-aggregated a Post story or hasn’t attributed it properly.

“Every few weeks we get somebody alerting us,” said Narisetti who, with the help of section editors, reaches out to aggregators when he thinks they’ve overstepped with a story. He said the Post’s lawyers have gotten involved in the past, but he wouldn’t share details.

“If people who read Post content read it elsewhere mostly and don’t feel like they need to come to the Post,” Narisetti said, “it’s undermining my ability to fund the kind of journalism I’d like to fund.”

When done right, aggregation can provide readers with a quick and easy way to keep up with news about topics that interest them. But it can also lead readers away from stories and sites, and perpetuate the idea that aggregators are “kleptomaniacs” and “tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet.”

The industry, it seems, would benefit from some standards to help aggregators determine their obligations to their organizations, their readers and the original sources they rely on. We would all benefit from strategies for meeting those obligations.

The aggregators I talked to acknowledged that there are still a lot of challenges to work through, but seemed hopeful.

“In a perfect world, everyone would read aggregated posts and then read the original stories. But unfortunately, that’s not the way it goes,” Voorhees said. “I think, ultimately, aggregation as a whole will do better as we all get better at defining what ‘success’ means for the trade.”

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  • Anonymous

    After all that reporting, is there a so-what? You have the news; where’s the information?

  • Anonymous

    Couldn’t agree more… It’s pathetic, really. 

  • http://twitter.com/JewsSpringsteen Jews Springsteen

    This is only still a story because Poynter makes it one; your bosslady put egg on all your faces with how she handled Jim’s departure. Quit trying to pretend Romenesko did ANYTHING wrong or unethical. Get over yourselves and get back to the work of advancing journalism.