Whatever you think of Ms. Brown and her so far skimpily detailed plans to launch an IAC-backed news-aggregation site, you have to admit her shift in purpose from producing original content to curating it is a sign of the times -- end times maybe -- for media as we've known it. Ms. Brown is the woman, after all, famous for presiding over the most magazine-y of magazines, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, two books whose deep reporting, extensive fact-checking and long stories have no digital-world analogs. But with the expensive pursuit of professional content failing to jibe with profitability, media entrepreneurship looks to be reduced to a meta role of repackaging what's already out there.
Welcome to the era of the aggregator.
Stealing others' thunder
If Web 1.0 was about old-media companies making half-hearted gestures at that online thing and Web 2.0 was a brisk reminder that, dot-com bust notwithstanding, the internet is a very real and open thing where walls and control don't work well, then part of Web 3.0 will be about figuring out how to monetize that openness. Euphemisms aside, the next chore for media outlets will be trying to sell ads against other people's content in addition to their own. Aggregation, not as a sidelight but as more of a focus, is a mission change for media, and there's a case for it, to be sure. Time and attention have limits, but the universe of content, it seems, does not. So finding a way to quickly and cleanly deliver relevant news is important. But there are also potentially large societal costs, and success is by no means guaranteed.
The portals and blogs, in very different ways, introduced the role of sifting and collating. Then mainstream media started to figure it out as a way to add more eyeballs and improve their performance on search engines. And as aggregation and curation took a front seat, deep investments in news-gathering became few and far between.
The Pew Center's most recent edition of its annual report on journalism, as gloomy a document as you'd imagine, noted that news organizations continued to tear down their walls. Eleven of 24 major news sites linked to off-site stories, up from three the year before. Yet the focus of reporting narrowed because of the attrition of news-gathering resources. The other side of that coin is that more organizations are getting hip to the reality that they can't depend on being destinations, so they're adding to their websites features that facilitate sharing and aggregation in ways that often take the content and the reader off-site. In short, they're finding ways to make their product an easily transportable commodity.
Why pay more?
The dynamic was summed up neatly in an October 2007 column in Vanity Fair by media pundit Michael Wolff. His observation that "news seems ever more valueless" bled into the conclusion that value resides in the organization of news. A sharp piece of analysis, the column doubled as an announcement of Mr. Wolff's new venture. Newser.com presents its version of the top stories of the moment in an image-heavy grid. When you move your mouse over a block, up pops a small window containing a summary of the story, a link to the source and an ad, perhaps for a brand such as Verizon or T-Mobile. It's not an industrial-strength collector like a Google News; it's more selective and it's probably more carefully presented. Mr. Wolff balks at the term "aggregator" but he doesn't quite have a concise descriptor for what Newser is.
The problem, of course, if you care about things like a robust economy of information, is that this prizes the organization of news stories, not their creation, begging pressing and ultimately depressing questions for the future of news. If aggregating is becoming the best way to make money from content, who's going to undertake the costly business of creating that content?
Asked whether, as a conten provider of the old school, he ever finds this state of things depressing, Mr. Wolff argues that the wealth of content on the web from both professionals and the legions of bloggers and other formerly-known-as-amateurs effectively is creating a golden age for content. "I'm tired of that New York Times argument that only the following kind of people create quality content. The range out there is remarkable ... and it's cost-free."
Then there's the question for the burgeoning business of aggregation itself. "The space is heating up," as Mr. Wolff puts it. So how do you grab enough consumers' eyeballs to get advertisers interested? That's no mean feat when you consider the fragmentation on the web in general and, in specific, among the growing number of sites purporting to be the last word in telling you what you need to read. It's a universe of boundless competition.
Evidence not all in yet
Newser has had some early success. Unique visitors jumped from 352,000 to 658,000 between January and February, according to ComScore. But pointing to the popularity of the websites of The New York Times or CNN, MediaVest VP-digital director Mo Renganathan isn't yet convinced consumers will support aggregation. "The general population hasn't migrated to the news-aggregator mentality in any broad sense. It'll be interesting to see how it transitions over time. I don't know if it'll flip."
Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix.com, a site that organizes news stories by ZIP code, argues that you need one of three things to succeed: an unusual approach like that of the immensely popular Digg, whose users vote stories up or down and thus allow the community to determine the most important news; a technology, such as Topix's artificial intelligence; or a content differentiator such as the Huffington Post's stable of celebrity bloggers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is bearish on the chances of survival for Ms. Brown's venture. Asked if her penchant for drumming up attention in the offline world will translate to a digital environment, he wagged: "You can't translate that buzz while using other people's content." (An IAC spokesman declined to make Ms. Brown available for an interview.)
He's not alone in his skepticism. Gabe Rivera, founder of Techmeme, a popular destination for those who want a snapshot of news and discussion around Silicon Valley, was blunt. "I expect efforts in news aggregation by established media companies to fail overwhelmingly," he wrote in an e-mail. "Successful aggregators have largely come from (1) enterprising individuals; (2) pioneering new concepts; and (3) [those who are] motivated by ownership of their project. Most big-media news-aggregation projects, lacking all three elements, are doomed. I expect somewhat better things from independent projects. Most will still fail -- that's typical in this space."
It's a tough assessment from someone who's made aggregation work, though it's perhaps not as bleak as the overall outlook for journalism, which has to come to grips both culturally and economically with a new model that's summed up by Pew like this: "There is no single or finished news product anymore."
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