Aggregation Forces Journalistic Evolution

News Outlets Must Accept That Consumers Want More Content Faster -- and Don't Care Who Creates It

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A link on the Drudge Report can drive hundreds of thousands of views of a news story, bringing a host of new readers and -- here's hoping -- some ad revenue to go with them.

Life inside the online echo chamber
Attributor follows the trail of a Politico story "JournoList: Inside the Echo Chamber"

Number of page views on Politico: 255,000

Number of sites that excerpted all or part of the story the day it was posted: 50

Number of those sites providing links back to Politico: 30

Number copying more than 50% of the story: 13

Number copying more than 50% of the story and selling ads against it: 7

Number with a formal distribution deal with Politico: 1 (Yahoo)

And a month of Politico ...

Number of sites that excerpted all or part of Politico stories: 14,749

Number of sites selling ads against Politico content: 7,101

Average number of "matches" per site: 3.3

Average amount of story excerpted: 29%

Average words copied: 200

But most of the many, many sites aggregating other people's content can't deliver that much traffic, and some don't even try. What's more, a vast swath of readers couldn't care less about anything deeper than a headline, which is a problem for the nation's beleaguered journalistic institutions as they try to find a sustainable model for newsgathering on the web.

"There are a lot of people who never want to know more than 'Six Killed in Iraq,'" said Jane Seagrave, senior VP-global product development at the Associated Press, "so that the money spent -- to put reporters in place, to guarantee their security, in many cases to compensate their widows and orphans when they're killed in action -- is not offset by any actual income from the work."

The old model was supported by the newspaper's near-monopoly on local advertising and its ability to package all of its stories in a print product -- whether they were wanted or not. On the web, readers won't even "pay" for the content by clicking through to a free, theoretically ad-supported site. And the slump in online display advertising isn't helping.

Professional publishers know there's demand for links and headlines; that's why they also often aggregate news from competitors themselves. And the ranks of people who want just the headlines are poised to grow in step with the web.

Not enough time
"It begins to change the form of journalism itself," said Michael Wolff, Vanity Fair columnist and founder of the aggregator Newser. "By offering more information, consumers are forced to look for abbreviations of that information. There's only so much time in the day or minutes in an hour. If you're going to take in more, you're going to have to focus it more."

"News organizations that have had a monopoly have to realize," Mr. Wolff added, "that just because they've spent the money to send a man to wherever they send them doesn't mean that they produce anything more valuable than anything else."

Today, content produced by the biggest news organizations is just as likely to be seen elsewhere as it is on publishers' own sites, according to Jim Pitkow, CEO of Attributor, a tracking firm in Silicon Valley. Mr. Pitkow, former CEO of early news aggregator Moreover, said, for some niche news sites, stories are viewed five times as often on other sites.

In many cases those views elsewhere around the web involve formal licensing agreements, such as the deal between the Associated Press and Yahoo. But many are generated by a long tail of sites, blogs and message boards known as MFAs, "Made for AdSense," that scrape the web for content and make money by serving up Google ads.

Reporters at Politico are explicitly instructed to create blog bait. Editor in Chief John F. Harris told them so in a memo laying out criteria for strong Politico stories. "Will a blogger be inspired to post on this story?" he told reporters to ask themselves.

Reposted, excerpted
After that, the next battle begins. Partly by design, Politico is widely linked, excerpted and quoted. Politico's top-referring sites are the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post, followed by Google, Yahoo and RealClearPolitics.

But in the past month, Politico stories were reposted or excerpted on 14,749 other sites, including 7,101 that carry advertising. One recent post about a site called "The JournoList" was excerpted or reposted on 50 sites ranging from Newsmax to Breitbart, from The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia to the Long Island TV news site News12.com -- all in one day. Only one, Yahoo, has a deal with Politico.

"Basically there are lots of people taking our content and just running the whole thing," said Roy Schwartz, VP-marketing and business development. "In most cases those people are then grabbing revenue through Google, Yahoo and other ad networks."

Politico takes a few approaches to these sites, including asking some to accept ads sold by Politico or blocking ad-network revenue for sites that don't cooperate. Politico offers a 50/50 revenue split for sites taking a story a day, 60/40 for sites taking two and 70/30 for sites taking three.

Unless there's a way to turn the internet off, publishers are going to have to figure out something or fail. "The fact that Google has made a tremendous amount of money off of other people's journalism is not a bad thing for journalism," said Eric Newton, VP of the journalism program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. "It means journalism is wanted and needed. It's not great news for those people whose jobs have been to monetize their own journalism, because they've been beat by the competition."

Josh Tyrangiel wrangles time from print to web

Time.com Managing Editor Josh Tyrangiel has been steering the iconic newsweekly's website since the fall of 2006. Ad Age asked him how to translate a quintessential print product into an always-on website. Here's our edited interview.

Ad Age: What needed changing when you took over?

Time.com Managing Editor Josh Tyrangiel
Time.com Managing Editor Josh Tyrangiel
Mr. Tyrangiel: There are major challenges. The first is to change the culture within the magazine. The second is to understand the medium itself. We got really lucky -- our best journalists in the magazine turned out to be the best journalists for the website. Everybody came along quite quickly.

Understanding the medium is a different thing. When you read the magazine you've made a decision to shut out the rest of the information economy. Whether you love the magazine or not, you're more than likely to flip through the thing. When you're on the web, you literally have infinity at your fingertips. If you think you'll write the same old-fashioned prose that we do in print, you're screwed. We've directed our journalists to save people time while making them smarter.

Ad Age: Have you tried to make the site the same as the magazine or is it different?

Mr. Tyrangiel: It's different. It has to be because of the medium. Part of it is just volume: We can take more chances, we can take more risks. Ninety-five percent of what's on Time.com is original to the web. I think that is a pretty good number for where you need to be at. If you're doing more stories you can take more chances.

Ad Age: Time.com recently ran an article by 24/7 Wall Street purporting to list the newspapers most likely to leave print next, kicking up a backlash. Do Time.com's syndication partners have the same reporting threshold and responsibility that Time does?

Mr. Tyrangiel: Yes. We'd like them to. We want people who bring the same level of expertise and the same level of reporting. Really we're experimenting with syndicated partners. I'm just trying to figure out how to get more -- more eyeballs, more content, more definitive coverage.

Ad Age: The presidential election was great for Time online as well as in print. How does Time.com maintain its urgency now?

Mr. Tyrangiel: January was a record month for us. We've had a very strong 2009 so far.

The really hard thing for people when they're making the transition, and this is not a popular thing to say, is the web is harder than print. It needs to be said all the time. You need to get up in the morning and put your shoulder to the wheel. It's not going to get solved tomorrow. There's not a technological solution; there's not a marketing solution. The solution is doing really, really good work, and over time consumers find it.

Ad Age: What's the takeaway for other legacy print publishers?

Mr. Tyrangiel: You have to understand social networking as well. If you want people to read your stuff, you have to listen to them.

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