Wednesday, December 30, 2009

To aggregate, or report? On successful online publishing

If there's one issue online publications have really battled with, it's the teeter-tottering relationship between the creation of original work and the aggregation of third-party content.

For years, most news organizations have operated under the guise that everything in their (newspaper, magazine, website) was original. But hawk-eyed readers would notice the "Associated Press" (or "Hearst" or "Cox" or "AFP" or...) bylines in the newspaper, and note that such content was republished from somewhere else.

The reasons for doing so are many: sometimes it's to fill space in a regional paper without resources; other times it's to ensure broad (Washington, D.C.) or acute (New Haven, Conn.) local coverage without committing costly resources.

The same thing is occurring online, and that's no surprise as the digital medium matures. The problem now is that stories break online, which means they can be republished very, very quickly without clear insight (or regard) as to who originally reported the story.

Online, the struggle remains over how to properly attribute content. (It certainly doesn't help that publications don't establish style rules for this.) But what's really interesting is how websites -- particularly smaller ones -- are filling the gaps.

In an interesting dicussion via Twitter yesterday, Gizmodo editorial director Brian Lam and AllThingsD senior editor Peter Kafka exchanged a few questions about building a digital publication around the (expensive, time-consuming, valuable) creation of original content versus the aggregation of (free, quick, with little lasting value) third-party content.

Here's the exchange:

Brian Lam: the net's greatest threat to journalism is not old vs new, its that reporters no longer get as much exposure to new sources in real life.

Peter Kafka: @blam biz problem, not tech. Encourage reporters to walk around, make calls, they will. Reward them for reblogging, they'll do that.

Brian Lam: @pkafka true. but remember, in old media, they rereported stories from scratch that were already written by comp., instead of links. worse!

Peter Kafka: @blam true dat. plenty of old-media was (and is) essentially reblogging. that's my point - not tech, but biz model.

The Editorialiste: @pkafka @blam so how to solve biz model incentive problem? what's the answer?

Brian Lam: @editorialiste I think its a judgement call between aggregation and reporting. and a resource thing. reporting is expensive if done old way.

The very reason this exchange can occur is because of the Internet's link-based economy: now, you can legally, through fair use, reproduce a paragraph or so of someone else's content, so long as you attribute it to them and include a link back to the original work.

Never before was that possible in such a dynamic way: often, newspapers would cite reportage by other papers, but in newsprint, there was no link to help you find it. Similar but worse, broadcast organizations often based their own coverage on original newspaper reports without citing the original source at all.

The exchange also shows that online players -- my peers, since both write for competing publications about technology -- are constantly thinking about the online business model.

Both AllThingsD and Gizmodo stay afloat with some level of reposting third-party content -- sometimes it's a copied quote, link and original analysis; other times it's a rewrite of a scoop first published by another publication. It's a particularly popular thing to do in technology coverage, since so much of it is based on products, and therefore based on nonexclusive press releases.

However, both sites regularly offer original content. In the Wall Street Journal tradition, Kafka often reports on the inner dealings of tech companies. Lam's team publishes tips/scoops on unreleased gadgets with some regularity.

Both offer a mix of original and aggregated content. At the time of writing, Gizmodo counts 15 names on its editorial masthead (plus a regular columnist, plus two interns); AllThingsD counts five names on its editorial team (plus a columnist, plus an intern).

Not all of Gizmodo's 15 are full-time, and many AllThingsD's staff double as full-time reporters for the Wall Street Journal. For both, aggregation is important -- there's simply no way either publication can cover everything quickly and originally.

The problem, of course, is to what degree. Both Brian and Peter make valid points in the conversation above:

  • How do you stay on top of breaking news if you're always doing original reporting?
  • How do you become more than a regurgitation mill if you're always rewriting or rereporting third-party content?
  • And is online reporting really the same as what mainstream media used to do, just more transparent?
As Brian notes above, it's a matter of resources. Online media garnered eyeballs by reposting everything it possibly could -- that's how it got its popularity. With popularity came some degree of money, which allowed for more staffing, which in turn allowed for more original content.

Gizmodo is a great example of this: it first made its name finding everything it could on the web about tech and transformed itself into a portal for the topic. Once it achieved a large audience (and money), it hired more editors to handle the aggregation, while its original team moved into original content.

Now, Gizmodo's become more of a magazine: it's got a cadre of low-level editors working on the day's quick-hit breaking news; it's got several regular columnists offering value through analysis; it's got a couple of high-level editors who work on what magazines call "special projects": regular features, or one-off special runs of coordinated content.

Unlike tech rival Engadget -- which has surpassed Gizmodo in absolute pageviews -- Gizmodo is now trying to differentiate by offering value through original ideas. (Engadget's done a measure of this too, but not nearly as much.)

And wouldn't you know it, Gizmodo has been making content-sharing deals with several popular tech websites. Gizmodo has become, if I may be so bold, its own wire service. (And other publications indeed find it cheaper to repost Gizmodo's content. But is that such a smart idea on the web, where you can always easily access the original version? That's for another blog post.)

(AllThingsD I'm leaving out of this, since so much of its content derives from the Wall Street Journal's regular reportage. However, the site has established a separate "Voices" section for outside, reposted coverage.)

Kafka's point above is that the business model forces trained reporters to work on unoriginal content, which I agree with. But it's Lam's point about budget that's really central to the situation. With a growing budget, more popular publications can afford to hire staff to work on original content: new features, marquee columns, event coverage.

With a modest budget, even the most bootstrap of reporters must resort to reposting or opining to keep the content flowing in between bouts of original reporting. (Unless a larger parent company is willing to subsidize this costly original reporting; see: Condé Nast and The New Yorker.)

So what's a publication to do? How do you leap the hurdle to move from repurposed content to original reporting? After all, you don't want to hire a full staff of reporters if you don't yet have the popularity to draw the eyeballs -- and thus earnings -- to support it.

Similarly, you don't want to hit a traffic ceiling in which you've got each one of your few reporters pushing content at full-tilt -- so much so that it's to the detriment of their work. That's also unsustainable.

(A side note, by the way: it remains unclear whether aggregation itself is sustainable. Can publications become news portals, or will that be the exclusive territory of Google, Yahoo and Comcast? Will we then begin an arms race for original reporting, or does non-automated republished news still have enough ROI to make it worth the effort?)

Aggregate, or report? On its face, it seems you don't really have a choice. Your popularity dictates the answer to that.

The challenge, then, is how to graduate from one sphere to the next.


Dave said...

At @dailycamera features, we've built a mash-up RSS feed of 10-15 well-read local music blogs. We don't have the resources to keep a reporter on the Denver metro area music scene full time (or really even part time), so we rely on the zealous and talented folks in the community who do.

We keep that feed right below (or in some cases adjacent to) our local music and arts coverage online. Two examples: and

We're headed toward doing that for other topics, too (and sports does it for other teams in the same conference as the local college team).

The Editorialiste said...

I'm going to add this great supplemental comment that Dave made via Twitter, because I think it's worth repeating here:

"Do what you do best; link to the rest." --whoever. Aim to be the source, even if we can't report on everything.

Ben Bowers said...

This is an interesting conundrum, and I appreciate the points you made early on about out sourcing coverage or re publishing previous coverage from other sources as not being a new thing. Strangely enough most people tend to associate this pattern only with online mediums.

Kafka mentions business models, but I think his focus was mainly on the resources required to pay reporters to generate original reporting v. using cheaper reporting methods. A more fundamental problem from a business standpoint though is the differences in ad revenue models between printed and online media outlets, which are the things generating reporter’s salaries in the first place.

The ad inventory for printed media is fixed by the number of ad spots or pages a publisher decides to make available. Subsequently, the revenue generated from this advertising is also fixed and the rate which publisher’s charge is merely a function of reach, not interaction or levels of consumption.

In this model, the publisher receives the same amount of ad revenue whether or not a buyer of a magazine or news paper decides to read the publication once, or 1,000 times. Similarly the publisher’s ad revenue generating potential is neither harmed nor improved if a reader decides to view competitor’s publication in addition, as long as the reader doesn’t opt sometime in the future to only reader the competitor.
Generally speaking this means the decision to publish only unique reporting v. reprinting or aggregating the reporting of others does little to affect the immediate bottom line of a publisher from an advertising revenue standpoint. That is unless the extra outsourced content allows them to print an additional page with an additional ad spot.

Online however, we all know ad inventory is not fixed and instead varies constantly with traffic. In this scenario, the more page views a site generates from one individual reader (e.g. consumption), the more ad inventory it generates as well which leads to the potential to make more money, pay more writers...etc.

This difference is the major driving factor for why site’s have an inherent interest in covering EVERYTHING related to their focus, originally reported on or reposted from somewhere else, because their consumption influenced ad revenue models put a incentive directly related to the bottom line on aggregating everything all in one place, in order to keep readers clicking locally rather than somewhere else.

It’s a sad reality and this broken model/system of incentives is the main reason so many sites that contribute virtually nothing new have gone on to obtain success. In the ideal case you’d hope that all content republisher’s eventually went the Gizmodo lifecycle route you mentioned earlier, using the strategy as a means to initially build readership and ad revenue, which then in turn gets channeled into paying reporters to create original quality content.
Unfortunately this just isn’t happening and sites like Gizmodo still remain the exception. So the only option left is to develop a new model.

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Lucy S said...

It is very intriguing the amount that the internet has changed everything. it seems ridiculous that television broadcasters used to be able to publish work without any citations. That being said I think that finding some sort of compromise on the internet will be vital.