The journalistic value of aggregation creates the business value

Aggregation has been core to this website’s success for the last decade. Our most popular feature since 1999 has been a blog that earns its iconic place in journalism by highlighting the most interesting and important news for a passionate audience. (In case you haven’t caught on, that blog is Romenesko.)

As I consider the fallout this week from Huffington Post’s decision to suspend Amy Lee for what I called “over-aggregation” in a headline and post about it aggregated by Steve Myers, it seems important to be transparent about how, for us, the journalistic value of aggregation creates the business value of aggregation.

Staci Kramer started me thinking down this path with her reminder that “a HuffPo link done right can have a positive effect.”

As Romenesko has taught us through the years, a leading, respected aggregator has the power to influence an audience by proposing what matters, by guiding readers to reliable sources, and by keeping them company as they travel through the newsosphere.

But that power is derived from originality.

No one needs a map to travel familiar roads. We need one — or a tour guide — to lead us into unfamiliar terrain. And as the familiar has been overtaken by the foreign during journalism’s remapping, aggregation has continued to play an important role. (In fact, that’s one of the reasons Romenesko’s blog now includes some additional contributors.)

The best aggregated material introduces us to new people, takes us new places and tilts the landscape so that we see it differently. That process involves distilling the terrain into a single point of interest and pointing, “Hey, look at that!”

The product brings original perspective to the news of the day, surprising us, provoking us and beckoning us back regularly.

Aggregation worth reading creates a loyal audience worth reaching.

That audience looks for a synthesis, not a comprehensive summary. The people who write comprehensive summaries are rewriters not aggregators, as Techmeme’s Gabe Rivera puts it.

In distilling Techmeme’s best practices, Rivera uses a table that illustrates how Poynter’s aggregation works as well, while illustrating a point about the business value of aggregation.

The value of the third item — ads — hinges on the first two, for aggregators. We receive constant tips and requests from people who want to be featured in the Romenesko blog. Appearing there provides them with validation and audience. If the value of being aggregated is clear to your sources, then it will be clear to advertisers and sponsors.

Even as readers began using RSS feeds, then Twitter, now Google+ to filter and surface information, there is no replacement for that scout who looks ahead and leads you safely around the curve you might not otherwise have seen coming. That’s what the best aggregation does. And that trust is why there’s a business in it — for those we pay to do the work and those who pay us to reach that audience of readers.

Over-aggregation devalues journalism. It also undermines other people’s businesses. And long-term, I doubt it’s a good business model. But originality always is.

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  • Gregg Freishtat

    Great analysis of a complex issue that will continue to evolve as the current dislocation in the publishing industry works itself out.  Eventually the courts will have to define how “fair use” operates in a digital world which will clear up  most of the fuzzy lines between whats being called good or bad aggregation.  At the end of the day, bad aggregation will be defined as theft – plain and simple.  Everything will be legal and fair game.  If done well, sites will be successful because consumers like the content gathered by the curator or tour guide.

    Really like the analogy of a “tour guide” who can provide readers with access to far more content than any one publisher can afford to produce themselves.  The reality of online content is that no one publisher can satisfy consumers expanded expectations of complete depth and breadth of content.  This economic reality is the root cause of aggregations prolific rise.  

    Being in the technology industry, I think new platforms and technologies will solve many of the current issues by addressing the real problem with aggregation — money.  How do content owners and destination sites that have large audience both get fairly compensated for their respective contributions — great content and big audiences.  Link backs, UV’s, and traffic deals are one answer (that does not seam to working very well) but there will be others.  If content owners simply got paid when their content was viewed by consumers on other sites, the aggregation dispute would go away.  Solving this issue is something we (and others in the technology space) are working on and will transform the online publishing ecosystem.

    Gregg Freishtat
    CEO, Vertical Acuity

  • Gregg Freishtat

    Very good analysis.

  • Gregg Freishtat

    Very good analysis.

  • Pink

    So the HuffPo way of aggregation is the bad and horrible way and the Romensko way of aggregation is the good and valuable way? The HuffPo just sold for $315 million dollars. What was that about business models, Julie?

    Well, Julie, thanks for clearing that up for everyone. You can defend Romensko and Poynter all you want, but at the end of the day you’re all aggregated–a word that is already defined. Ohh wait, you created a neologism! Over-aggregation. You steal stories you did not write and make a blog post out of the content of those stories, including a link to the original author. It should be a win-win for both but some people just don’t get it and they never will.  Romensko and Julie can pump their chests because a link on this blog is surely to give you a boost in hits for the week but the link from Amy’s blog only sent 57 people.

    Julie, you basically wrote a post to defend your way of aggregation so you could trash the HuffPo. Whether it is 2 or 10,000, I don’t see how the number of people that the aggregation site sends to the author of the aggregated article factors in to this debate; it’s still 2 people likely to have not visited that day.