Journalists Are Aggregators Too (And That's A Good Thing)
from the yes,-they-are dept
A few weeks ago, when the NYTimes’ Bill Keller bizarrely compared Arianna Huffington to a Somali pirate, we noted that journalism is a form of aggregation as well. After all, you’re taking content from the people who actually make news, and aggregating it into a publication. It appears that others are catching on to this as well. A bunch of folks have passed along this blog post from the Zunguzungu blog, which notes that journalists are aggregating too. I don’t like the use of the word “thieves” here, as I believe (yet again) that it’s a misleading and wrong use of the term, but I believe the usage here is in comparing the claims of some journalists that aggregators are “thieves.”
The real problem, however, is that journalists are, by their nature, thieves of words. You can call it what you like; you can say “Possibly I am old-fashioned,” and talk about how “actual journalists are laboring at actual history, covering the fever of democracy in Arab capitals and the fever of austerity in American capitals” (Keller) or you can brag about the “148 full-time editors, writers, and reporters engaged in the serious, old-fashioned work of traditional journalism” (Huffington), but all this “old fashioned” stuff is just a way of covering over something really basic about what “actual” journalists “traditionally” do, all the time: write down what other people say. They can exercise editorial discretion in how they integrate and harmonize the various quotes they’ve aggregated. They can confirm, they can contextualize, and they can (very rarely) manage to witness something with their own two eyes. They can produce collages out of stolen scraps. And they should do these things. But at the core of the journalistic process is the act, inescapably, of taking other people?s texts, weaving them together, and then placing them under your byline (with appropriate citation) and profiting from the activity.
This kind of thing gets old fashioned journalists quite upset. When I published that last post, I had a long time journalist send me a very, very angry email, quite upset about the idea that I would diminish his profession by comparing it to aggregating. But, as the blog post notes, the definition is pretty arbitrary. The problem here is twofold. First, everyone likes to think that their particular role in something is, perhaps, the most important. In a news story, you have the folks actually involved in the story, the people who write/report on the story, the people who distribute that story, people who comment on it and more. Is one role more important than others? I think it’s difficult to say definitively, but many people in each of these roles want to insist that their role is the most important. “Without us,” they say, “you wouldn’t have x.”
The second issue is that there’s been this denigration of the word “aggregator,” as if aggregating is a bad thing. But, of course, it’s not. Aggregators have always served an important purpose, and that’s true today more than ever. In today’s world, the old school journalism folks always seem to be complaining whenever anyone points out that “the news” is appearing more and more like a “commodity.” It sounds insulting, but that’s missing the point. It’s factual that news can now be copied at a zero marginal cost, making it effectively infinite once created (and yes, creation still has a cost). But the problem that the news guys are facing is that the content is no longer scarce and a lack of scarcity makes it quite difficult to charge prices above marginal cost. That’s just fundamental economics.
But you know what is scarce? Time and attention. People are inundated with abundant information these days, and what they look for are trusted aggregators, curators and filters of that information. They seek those out because it saves them time, and lets them direct their attention more efficiently. In other words, people value the aggregation, because it serves a valuable role when the content is infinitely available, but time is not.
What’s problematic is that these old school journalism types don’t recognize this. They’re in the prime position to be the “aggregators of first resort.” They’re in the prime position to do what they’ve always done, which is act as the useful filter, but instead they talk up the importance of the content itself, rather than the aggregation function, because they have this irrational dislike of the concept of aggregation. It’s really unfortunate, because getting over that hump — as a few publications certainly have — would make it a lot easier to embrace 21st century digital business models.