Whining isn't winning

Dear journalists,

Please quit whining about “aggregation,” or whatever other phenomenon on the Internet you’re blaming today for the fact you no longer enjoy the monopoly over local publishing you once had.

To be blunt, whining about the competition is the act of a loser. The publications that win in the information marketplace will be the ones that won’t get bogged down in snit fits over the competition because they’re too busy focusing on – and meeting – the information needs of their audience.

So it’s been with increasing frustration that I’ve been watching the New York Times’ ongoing tiff with the Huffington Post.

I find this verbal battle especially frustrating for as I’ve written before, all reporting is, in essence, aggregation. Otherwise, you’re writing fiction.

Reporting is the act of collecting information from multiple sources for inclusion within a news report. Isn’t that simply a form of aggregation?

I don’t get the complaint that certain online publishers (i.e. Huffington Post) don’t always pay the sources from which they are getting their information, either. I’ve been interviewed by reporters from the New York Times, as well as the Washington Post, NPR, the BBC and CNN. I don’t remember any of them cutting me a check, either. But they used my words to fill part of their pages and broadcast time.

If journalists really feel the need to distinguish themselves from their competition, let them make a case for the value of their reporting over someone else’s. I do believe that there are real differences in value between the various ways that publishers collect, select and present information.

But the focus needs to remain on that value and not simply on the process that a specific publisher follows. If that process creates value for someone, then it’s worthwhile. And if it doesn’t, then it’s not. It really is that simple.

If you want to move beyond the playground name-calling, let’s talk about some of the ways that a publisher might create better value for its readers:

Unique aggregation

Find voices or sources that haven’t been heard in others’ reporting or republication already. Typically, that means find offline sources who haven’t yet had access to the global online information marketplace. Talk to people who aren’t speaking online, and who have a unique experience that hasn’t been reported by someone else before. Dig through offline documents that haven’t been made easily available on the Web. Observe places and events that aren’t being well documented by others.

As more and more people get online around the world, this type of aggregation reporting becomes more difficult to do. But here’s a tip: If traditional journalists sneer that the information you are collecting “isn’t journalism,” then you’re exploring an area that might have been underreported before since those traditional journalists ignored it. That’s not always the case, of course, but don’t ever let finger-wagging from the old school stop you.

Aggregation can be made unique not just in its line-up of sources, but in the ways that they are selected and combined. This is the value of great curation, and where online journalists such as Andy Carvin distinguish themselves.

Unique analysis

This is where the future of journalism lies, I hope. The selection of sources to aggregate is the first step in analysis, but journalists ought not to be afraid of taking the next steps, to check information against other sources and make explicit to readers when information is false or sources duplicitous.

Unfortunately, too many reporters continue to see themselves as nothing more than stenographers, bound by a misinterpretation of journalism ethics that prevents them from ever calling a lie a lie. And as a result, these journalists and their employing newsrooms will continue to lose market share to publications that aren’t afraid to follow through with their reporting and allow it to lead them to a specific point of view: publications like, say, the Huffington Post.

More convenient delivery of aggregated information

Newspapers won lucrative local monopolies because they packaged and delivered information in a way that was valuable to consumers. Fifteen years ago, those consumers started to find it more convenient to get that information by visiting websites throughout the day, rather than waiting for a printed paper to hit their doorstep the next morning. Today, many of those consumers now are finding it more convenient to get information through social networks and mobile apps than to visit newspaper websites on traditional computers.

Again, don’t get hung up on process. Focus on value, and engage whatever process or medium you need to create and deliver that value.

Lower cost of delivery to user

I’m the product of a newspaper war, having worked as the Web editor for the late Rocky Mountain News when it was battling the Denver Post. Both papers were trying to build circulation by slashing subscription rates – down to $3.66 for two years of home delivery at its lowest point. (Yes, that was three dollars and sixty-six cents: a penny a day for the first year, and an extra penny for the second.)

Guess what? Circulation soared. (What brought both papers to near-death was the battle in discounting their advertising rates, not their subscription costs. What each paper gave up in subscription fees was trivial next to what they were giving away to advertisers in the 1990s.)

The lesson here is that as publications lower their cost of delivery to the audience, they build the size of that audience. That cost can be financial, in the form of a subscription fee, or it can be an opportunity cost, in the form of having to go to a website, navigate through a user interface, or be distracted by an ad.

As with anything else in business, this reduces to math. Your audience size will be a function of the value you deliver divided by the cost that audience members incur to get it. As you work to increase the value of your work, don’t forget that whoever provides the greatest value at the lowest cost will be the one who wins the audience.

The conclusion?

No one outside of the field of journalism cares if you consider your reporting more original or more worthy than others’ collection of information. They only care if your reporting delivers them more value than what those others offer. And the readers will make that decision for themselves, thank you very much.

So if you want to succeed in this business, quit wasting your time bagging on others’ business models or reporting structure. If you feel the need to criticize another news organization, hit the ones that are inaccurate or intentionally misleading, instead.

(Then, if you’re into the business of press criticism, go ahead take on the whiners. But realize that only industry insiders will care.)

Otherwise, keep quiet, and focus your energy instead on taking care of your business by taking care of the needs of your community.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    I agree with your basic points here. One MAJOR problem: if its as simple as adding value, why hasn’t anyone been able to add it? (I’m speaking specifically about local newspapers, where most journalists are employed). It ain’t easy out here, my friend.

  2. When Gutenberg invented his printing machine, the 15th Century monks whined that no layman should be allowed to reproduce the sacred truths that they and all their religious predecessors had reported and produced in traditional ways for dissemination.

    When those monks finally realized that there were no longer any business models remaining for their traditional practices, at least they found other things to produce (beer, cheese, etc.)

    Is it true that Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Janet Robinson have invested in a winery outside New Paltz? ;^)