Why <em>The New Republic</em> is Wrong on Aggregation

An editorial in theresembles a plaintive cry that the Internet is taking us not to democratic heaven, but to democratic hell. I have some sympathy -- but with reservations.
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Now for something a little different. The New Republic published an editorial this week that tackled the question of aggregation on the web. Its headline was certainly aggressive, "Aggregation Robbery," and the deck was provocative, "Is The Huffington Post ruining journalism?"

The best to be said here is that it raises an important question. The worst is that it neither answers those questions, nor particularly justifies either the "robbery" or the HuffPo-is-destroying-journalism charges. Part of the problem is that TNR has a very capacious definition of aggregation. At one point, TNR seems to suggest that aggregation is the wholesale scraping of content by aggregators, which is a kind of theft of intellectual property (though apparently legal), but then it extends the name to search engine optimization, from common attempts to boost traffic on search engines by linking to other sites or using keywords to the kind of whoring after traffic practiced by content farms. Once you broaden aggregation out that far, it begins to resemble age-old techniques to boost hard-copy magazines sales or to sell subscriptions. The Week is little more than a hard-copy aggregator; and the techniques of mass mailing cheap subscription offers or putting scantily clad women, hot celebrities or Charlie Sheen on covers to sell on newsstands are attempts to inflate circulation numbers, which suspiciously resembles whoring after traffic.

TNR's big point is its concern that aggregation, which is relatively cheap, will eventually drive out original journalism, which is relatively expensive. If we don't watch it, warns TNR, "we are going to wake up one day and discover we are simply aggregating each other's aggregation." At the very least, TNR seems to have a pretty poor view of the audience's ability or willingness to seek or recognize legitimate content.

This definitional haziness about aggregation particularly hits home when TNR goes after HuffPo. The site, it argues, chases traffic -- and even worse, it's good at it. But, the magazine admits, "HuffPo is not a scraper or a content farm; it publishes plenty of original journalism. But it has been successful for the same reason that scrapers or content farms are frequently successful -- a penchant for search-engine optimization. Often this means that HuffPo simply does a better job of drawing traffic to its own pieces." (Full disclosure here: The Deal sends some content to HuffPo, including some posts from this blog.) This is like the old breakup-the-Yankees argument. HuffPo may be producing lots of original journalism, which seems to be the heart of the matter, but the site is too effective in getting attention through SEO, so something needs to be done. It's ruining the game!

To make matters worse, TNR goes on to admit a) that maybe the problem isn't aggregation per se, maybe "it's that the entire structure of the media world currently provides publications with huge incentives to aggregate and comparatively small incentives to create," and b) that TNR itself engages in aggregation, if that means trying to boost traffic through search engines. So HuffPo isn't ruining journalism, journalism ("the entire structure of media") is ruining journalism. At this point, the editorial fizzles like a wet firecracker. No publication, it admits, is about to stop aggregating. Nonetheless, the magazine suggests with about as much hope as Charlie Sheen's shrink that "journalists might, as a collective whole, pause to think about where our priorities ought to lie. Even as we play the game by current rules -- which means we will all continue to invest in aggregation -- we need to remind ourselves that aggregation is not a replacement for journalism." That might work at a publication like TNR, which, to its credit, has long resisted sacrificing quality for profitability that has often been lacking. But that's not the case in the media world in general, where journalists generally lack the power to make commercial decisions.

TNR seems to be rebelling against the very essence of the web, which is linking, and which is, by its lights, synonymous with aggregation. This editorial resembles a plaintive cry that the Internet is taking us not to democratic heaven but to democratic hell. I have some sympathy with that -- but with reservations. Despite the insistence of Web partisans that it is the best-of-all-possible-mediums, that its openness and accessibility is an unalloyed good, concerns dog the Internet: its fragmentation, its free-floating aggressiveness, its tendency to create antagonistic blocs of like-minded souls. Indeed, the Web, like our networked world at large, has proved an efficient mechanism for the creation of conventional wisdoms, rife with self-promotion and flim-flam. Aggregation may spawn liberation movements, but it may also incite mobs, whether virtual or real. The Web is a mirror of great power and focus -- but it tends to take just a piece of the whole and blow it up. It's prone to the same weaknesses as democracy and the markets: a tendency to over or underreach, a weakness for manias and bubbles, plus cheap thrills.

The Internet then is just like good old-fashioned journalism, except more so. The old ways were often pretty crappy. So are the new. Blaming aggregation, or HuffPo, for what ails us is silly.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal. For more from Robert Teitelman, check out The Deal Economy.

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