Aggregation nation: Why two news sources are better than one

by Hayden Wright / Beacon Staff • March 24, 2011

 

This month, Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, started a catfight over kitten videos with Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post. In a piece written for The New York Times Magazine, Keller accused Huffington of discovering “that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications...millions of people will come.”

Huffington quickly published a gleeful rebuttal, calling Keller’s column “as lame as it is laughable,” and wondering whether he was “too busy scanning all those lists of ‘most powerful people’ he’s on to notice that he also lost one of his top editors, Tim O’Brien, to us.” Meow.

She also wrote that following its recent merger with AOL, The Huffington Post is staged to acquire 70% more traffic than The New York Times online, making Keller’s jabs look all the more desperate.

That desperation is not new. In the 1980s, CNN was the first 24-hour news network to update audiences around the clock with headlines and live video, a seismic shift that prompted catty criticism from print journalists.

Criticism that TV news was sensationalistic, shallow, and pandering — more focused on aesthetics than substance — was so widespread that it entered the cultural zeitgeist in James L. Brooks’ strikingly honest assessment of media, 1987’s blockbuster movie Broadcast News.

Newspapers are at it again. The target in 2011? Online news aggregation—the process by which websites like The Huffington Post and Google News accumulate headlines from scores of other blogs, newspapers, television reports, and magazines. “In Somalia this would be called piracy,” wrote Keller. “In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.”

That’s where Keller’s column completely missed the mark. “Even before we merged with AOL, HuffPost had 148 full-time editors, writers, and reporters engaged in the serious, old-fashioned work of traditional journalism,” wrote Huffington. To boot, her staff has received numerous awards, and the publication has courted guest bloggers as prestigious as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and the late Ted Kennedy.

In fact, some of the most compelling and up-to-the-minute reporting about the financial meltdown, international affairs, and midterm elections (to name a few) took place in-house at The Huffington Post.

Even legendary New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has cited Huffington Post financial reporting in his work for the newspaper.

Yes, lowbrow content like “celebrity gossip” and “kitten videos,” makes it into the Entertainment, Video, and Comedy sections. But who would dismiss The New York Times’ reporting because they publish sodoku games?

Empty finger-pointing aside, Keller’s below-the-belt objection is really about The Huffington Post’s business model: not because he can prove Huffington doesn’t publish solid journalism, or his ad hominem jabs about “kitten videos.” His bitter objection to Huffington’s success is predicated on the idea that if a new kind of media outlet challenges print newspapers, it must be damaging to journalism.

“I can’t decide whether serious [aggregated] journalism is the kind of thing that lures an audience to a site like The Huffington Post,” wrote Keller, “or if that’s like hiring a top chef to fancy up the menu at Hooters.”

It’s easy to see why Keller is so grumpy. Arianna Huffington has captured lightning in a bottle, while print newspapers continue to struggle. While The New York Times puts up a paywall, The Huffington Post is tearing walls down, redefining the way individuals experience news.

As a dedicated HuffPost reader, their array of aggregated content routinely provides me with a complex understanding of stories as they evolve. Huffington makes no apologies for aggregating content. Instead, she has come to understand that readers aren’t getting their news from a single source anymore.

I’m able to read excellent original reports from staff writers alongside embedded videos from news programs and links to commentary from a variety of sources. It’s a critical reader’s dream. Quotes and assertions are frequently attributed with links, making it easy for me to understand a story from the ground up: Every angle is a click away.

And furthermore, the nature of news aggregation has lent The Huffington Post a self-awareness that is necessary to developing a candid Media section. Where traditional publications comparatively wear blinders to focus on their own content, Huffington understands that the way we inform ourselves is a source of news unto itself, a sphere that can’t be ignored.

Their army of unpaid bloggers (separate from their 148-strong reporting and editorial staff) volunteer their talent (or, admittedly, sometimes lack thereof) to opine, coloring stories in ways that feel fresh and personal.

As a magazine writing student who’s heard horror stories about starting out as a freelancer, exposing my work to 28 million unique visitors would be appealing compensation next to $50 and a thank-you note from an obscure trade journal. Slinging mud from an ivory tower is no way for Keller to compete with the democratization of news.

Surely the most respected American newspaper is classier than this.

In the wake of Keller’s column, Jason Linkins, a paid writer for The Huffington Post, discovered an open call from The New York Times soliciting cute pet videos— leaving Keller with his tail between his legs. Perhaps he should return to running my favorite newspaper and quit picking on the big guy.