Why the death of syndication is great news for hyperlocal and niche sites

Clay Shirky makes a wise prediction for 2011. It is called widespread disruptions for syndication:

Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs. When news outlets were segmented by geography, having live human beings sitting around in ten thousand separate markets deciding which stories to pull off the wire was a service. Now it’s just a cost.

If you happen to run a hyperlocal or niche publication, this prediction is a good one. Internet is built on the idea of having just one copy of everything, accessible to everyone. If you produce those original pieces of content, no need to worry. If you’re in the business of aggregating others content, prepare for a rough ride.

The idea of one copy surfaced last winter along with Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. Internet pioneer Ted Nelson originally coined the term and Lanier summarizes it well:

Instead of copying digital media, we should effectively keep only one copy of each cultural expression.

Internet is the great antidote for the Gutenberg printing press: instead of enabling us to make copies cheaper and faster, it makes the whole idea of copying obsolete. Why copy if you can make a link to the original?

Anyone who has worked in an online newsroom knows the problem of copying. How much time we should spend following the other news outlets, copy their breaking stories with a punchier headline and a quickly written comment? And how much effort should be spent creating original content and our own breaking stories?

The idea of “do what you do best, link to the rest” is not new, Jeff Jarvis wrote about it already in 2007. But for some reason, linking seems to be really difficult for news organizations. The idea of having everything on your site comes from the old editorial culture. Newspaper is the complete package of yesterday’s events; TV newscast is today’s package of everything important. If you leave something out, people will probably change the channel or cancel the subscription. But in the Internet, there are no packages, channels or subscriptions. There is just one big mess of links.

When Ted Nelson was making the first designs for something like World Wide Web, it didn’t have copies but one giant, global file.

The whole of a user’s productivity accumulated in one big structure, sort of like a singular personal web page.

So the idea of Internet — and the technology behind it — is exactly the opposite to the idea of a traditional newspaper publishing. We are not creating our own publications or single ‘destination’ websites but building a giant, single web. Work against this principle and you’ll end up in trouble. This is why paywalls are failing on the Web, in mobile and will fail in most cases on iPad. Once you start blocking iPad users from your website to sell more apps, you are encouraging readers to make copies, not subscriptions.

But all this is great news for small publishers, such as hyperlocal news or niche sites. You can be a part of that single Web page of Internet news. Concentrate on the original content instead of copying; create the one copy only you or your organization can create. If you don’t believe me, listen to Gawker’s Nick Denton: scoop generates audience, which in turn generates advertising.

The end of syndication is good news for journalists as well. When publishers start creating more original content instead of hastily made copies, the human element comes back to the process of journalism. The creator of the original content becomes more valuable, because it is still pretty difficult to make copies of people.

I might sound like a technophile, but the irony is that Google News is already helping original content to surface above copies. Google News algorithm knows who published the original story first. If your news site covers the same story and doesn’t include the link to the original story in the first paragraph, you can kiss Google News front-page goodbye.

And it was Google News algorithm that made us aware of the syndication craze. Who could have imagined there were 12,000 copies of the ‘Somali pirates’ story without Google telling it to us. Now Google is punishing us for making those copies. Who saw that one coming?

Pekka Pekkala researches sustainable business models at USC Annenberg, is a partner at Fugu Media> and a technology columnist. He used to be the head of development at Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish newspaper.

About Pekka Pekkala

Pekka Pekkala is a freelance writer and Visiting Scholar at USC Annenberg, writing a book “How to Keep Journalism Profitable” on a grant from Helsingin Sanomat Foundation.


  1. says:

    Have to disagree here… Or at least challenge. Aggregators may face challenges, but curators will thrive in an environment where there is one copy of everything.

    Those who will struggle are those who are taking content from other sources and trying to pass that content off as their own. But the need for a trusted filter/partner will only grow in an environment where there is one copy of everything, residing all over the Net.

  2. says:

    Clay Shirky might be on to something in connection with old media syndication. However, syndicasting (Yes, I coined the term) is entirely different in that uses stand-alone brand channels that support individual news outlets that can mix, match and otherwise CUSTOMIZE their news outputs in stand-alone brand channels which enables them to charge for ads aimed at customized demographics. Customization plus brand channel syndication equals a syndicast. Shirky, who is nearly always prescient about these things, is behind the innovation curve on this one.
    Frederick Harris
    Founder NewsNav

  3. Pekka, what about the widespread practice of mirroring content to make sure it stays public? What about all the copies of a given videoclip on YouTube? Waste of space online, surely, but in the age of abundant space, not an issue. The vision of one copy of everything is elegant but the nature of things seems to make it not so.

  4. I totally agree with Tuija Aalto: mirroring content ( here in Italy ) is very common

  5. First commenter: I agree. But the curating has to be original as well. Computers will do non-human curating better.

    Frederick Harris: Syndicasting sounds like a great idea, something like computer-generated curating?

    Tuija Aalto: Sure there will be always additional copies. The idea of one copy is not to take it literally, but try to think it as the technology platform.