The following is an edited transcript of remarks I delivered last week at the WAN-IFRA Future of News Media and Journalism Conference in Singapore.
Generating original content, or aggregating someone else’s? If you’re running (or starting up) a news website, which model should you choose?
Actually, this is a trick question… because they’re the same thing. In journalism, our “original” content always has been the product of aggregation.
Let’s take a look at the newspapers where I’ve worked over my career, from a small daily in Bloomington, Indiana to the Los Angeles Times. Each paper has published reports from wire services, from feature syndicates, from freelancers… even letters and op-ed articles from readers. That’s aggregation. Even the supposedly “original” stories ultimately were works of aggregation. We aggregate interviews from sources; we aggregate documents that we ask find or ask for; we aggregate our observations of people, places and events.
If we weren’t publishing aggregation, if we truly were creating original content, we’d be writing fiction, spun from the creativity of our own imaginations. As journalists, we try not to do that.
This is a false choice: creation versus aggregation. The newspaper industry long ago optimized the use of aggregation for its medium. So the choice really becomes: Shall we use aggregation the way that the newspaper industry has always done it, or aggregation the way that it’s being employed by a new generation of online start-ups?
What’s the distinguishing characteristic, then, of this new form of aggregation that we’re now seeing online? Well, it’s that it’s being done really cheaply. It’s very inexpensive. They’re using automation, like Google News does, and social media, like Facebook, to bring together sources of information for far less expense than people in the newspaper industry can do that with a traditional newsroom model for reporting, editing and page design.
That provides online aggregators with a significant cost advantage in the competitive marketplace that all news publishers now face. But is there any social value in the cheaply produced aggregation that we’re now seeing proliferate around the Internet?
My academic background is a bit unusual for journalism: My undergraduate major was in math. So, ultimately, this reduces to an equation for me. The value that a publication ultimately has in an information marketplace is equal to what readers (or advertisers or funders) are willing to pay for it minus what it costs to produce it. That’s it. If that resulting number is positive, then there’s value in what you do. If it is negative, then you have a problem.
The expense of producing content is so low for many aggregators that they don’t need nearly as large a community of individuals to find great value in what they produce for them to be in the black. If a relatively small collection of people find value in getting information from the particular mix of content that aggregator provides, that gives them enough revenue, usually from associated advertising, that they can remain in business.
The irony is that a larger scale metropolitan or national newspaper can deliver huge value for an audience, with massive advertising revenue and direct sales, but that’s still not enough revenue for its owners in this competitive marketplace, because their production expenses are so large. So even if a traditional newspaper delivers more social benefit to an audience than an online aggregator, the difference in production costs favors the online upstart.
So the challenge for the newspaper industry now is to take a look at what these start-up aggregators are doing and perhaps, from that, learn what traditional newsrooms can do to change, to aggregate the information that they’ve been collecting from their communities in ways that are less expensive, and that would better serve the community.
That’s a word – community – that I hope we use a lot in the remainder of our conversation here today. I agree with Jeff [Jarvis, who spoke earlier that day to the conference] and Reginald [Chua, the editor of the South China Morning Post, who also spoke that day] that we, ultimately, are in the community business. We might think of ourselves as being in the publishing business, but we should take a step a few degrees over to the side and look at things from the perspective of being in the community business. From a different angle – see, I’m going back to math again – then the pathway to the future might become more clear.
The key to success in any business is to find where the market’s pain is: What is the community’s need? So your role as a journalist, trying to remain viable in your marketplace, is to understand what the pains in your community are. (I wrote about this in Doing journalism in 2010 is an act of community organizing.) Then, once you’ve identified the need, think about how you can use information that you can collect – to aggregate – to meet those needs, to alleviate that pain.
If reader-contributed content is to be part of that solution, and I believe that it should be, then don’t make the mistake of segregating it within its own section of your website. The community you serve must come together on your site, and that includes bringing together readers (both sources and audience) and staff writers.
Even our traditional newsroom sources are using new ways to communicate with the community now, going around us. They’re on Facebook and Twitter; they’re blogging and e-mailing lists of supporters. They’re talking in existing online communities, message boards and social networks within the broader community. Let’s catalogue those avenues through which people in the community are communicating with each other and think about how we, as journalists, can create a network that will bring all those avenues together. And to do so in a way that will help use to play our role as the organizer of the broader community. Let’s keep aggregating community voices, but start doing that more and more with automation and social media tools.
So how do we do this without adding even more expense to our newsroom operations? Again, let’s learn from the upstarts. We need to be developing and employing more journalist/programmers, people with IT programming skills and a journalism sensibility. Some journalism schools in the United States are adding this to their curriculum. At Northwestern University, my alma mater, for example, the Medill School of Journalism has created a program to train programmers to create news applications for the next generation of computer-assisted research and reporting. We need people who can create tools that support thriving, responsible online communities, instead of relying on off-the-shelf commenting and discussion forum tools that are too easily hijacked by trolls. We need people who can take government data and industry data and create living applications that makes that information available to the public in ways and formats that they understand and that they can do something with.
This is another way that we can create value: We ought to create fresh ways for the public to take our data, our reports, and let them easily aggregate it within their own blogging, Tweeting and social network publishing. We talked earlier about how YouTube helped take over the online video market by providing easy to use code that allowed anyone to embed a YouTube video on a blog or website. We need journalist/programmers who are creating ways for us to reduce our distribution expenses by empowering our readers to become our own distribution network.
We’ve got to get over the mindset that aggregation is a bad thing. That mindset keeps us from developing tools that allow readers to aggregate our content, and by doing so, becoming partners with us in an information community.
So how do we make money off all of this? Let’s not forget that for many readers, advertising is content. People like to read certain ads. Why shouldn’t we create distribution channels for people to aggregate and syndicate our ads, as they might do our stories and blog posts and links? When people are interested in our content, including advertising, we must find ways to push that content out to a larger share of the community.
Think like a network. Why not strike deals with other blogs and websites covering your community to sell ads onto their sites, allowing your ad sales force to remain the market leader within the community? Trust me, those publishers would welcome the extra revenue, even if the paper took a cut. And why not go the other way, as well? Let bloggers who can reach and service smaller, neighborhood advertiser sell into our newspapers and newspaper websites, and let them take a cut of that revenue? It simply expands our reach into markets that our sales forces can’t afford to service, at no cost to us.
The specific model that you employ will be as unique as the particular community that you choose to cover as a journalist. But to find that model, then to create it, we must first stop demonizing aggregation. It’s long been the foundation of our industry.
So let’s instead view this crisis as an opportunity – to reconnect with our communities and to recreate journalism in ways that better serve the 21st-century needs of those communities.