One of the great and pressing questions of the post-blog age is : What constitutes unfair -- unethical -- aggregation? In the absence of a clear legal framework (the "fair use" doctrine in the U.S. is notoriously mushy), a lot of media people tend to use the "I know it when I see it" standard, echoing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's wry 1964 declaration about what constitutes hard-core porn.
Bill Keller, the outgoing editor of The New York Times, knows sketchy aggregation when he sees it. In his column in the Times Magazine in March, he famously attacked certain aggregators for "taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy." He then added, "The queen of aggregation is , of course, Arianna Huffington."
One of Queen Huffington's defenses of her aggregation practices (of which I've been a longtime critic) has always been to insist that her Huffington Post drives traffic to the sites from which it draws content. And given its sheer size, especially now that it's owned by AOL, it undoubtedly does. But to what extent?
As it happens, I now have a little personal case study, thanks to internal AdAge.com Google Analytics stats regarding a June post of mine titled "Poor Steve Jobs Had to Go Head to Head With Weinergate in the Twitter Buzzstakes. And the Weiner Is ..." It's part of a weekly "trending topics" series that 's hardly the journalistic equivalent of brain surgery -- it's meant to be an entertaining take on social-media chatter -- but it does involve a surprising amount of work and a lot of back-and-forth conversations with our editorial partner Trendrr, an online buzz-tracking firm, as we figure out together what we want to cover and how we'll capture and analyze the data that Trendrr generates exclusively for Ad Age .
The post did well for us: It hit No. 1 on AdAge.com's "Most Read" chart and was picked up by both Techmeme -- an aggregator that takes a minimalistic approach (usually just presenting a headline and a one- or two-sentence snippet) -- and The Huffington Post.
HuffPo's aggregation, titled "Anthony Weiner vs. Steve Jobs: Who Won On Twitter?," consisted of basically a short but thorough paraphrasing/rewriting of the Ad Age post -- using the same set-up (i.e., pointing out that Apple had the misfortune of presenting its latest round of big announcements on the same day Weiner resigned from Congress) and the bulk of the data presented in the original Ad Age piece. Huffpo closed out its post with "See more stats from Ad Age here" -- a disingenuous link, because Huffpo had already cherrypicked all the essential content. HuffPo clearly wanted readers to stay on its site instead of clicking through to AdAge.com.
So what does Google Analytics for AdAge.com tell us? Techmeme drove 746 page views to our original item. HuffPo -- which of course is vastly bigger than Techmeme -- drove 57 page views.
To Bill Keller, I have this to say: Stop being so generous! To evoke the specter of Somali pirates gives way too much credit to those editors and writers at HuffPo who regularly engage in unethical aggregation. Because, geez, this is grade-school-level pathetic! This is akin to those lazy-ass and/or dumb kids in the fifth grade who would ask if they could copy off my homework or would "write" term papers by rephrasing the Encyclopaedia Britannica (pre-Wikipedia).
To Arianna Huffington, I have this to say: The extent to which you're trying to buy respect by poaching editors and writers from The New York Times and other traditional news operations (with all that funny money AOL chief Tim Armstrong has so unwisely put at your disposal) has gotten downright embarrassing. If you really want to rescue your legacy, get in touch with your inner fifth-grader -- and tell her to grow the hell up already.
UPDATE: The Huffington Post has suspended the author of the post rephrasing Ad Age 's Weiner/Apple Twitter Buzzstakes post, saying this column's criticism "is completely valid."
Huffington Post Executive Business Editor Peter Goodman's response:
I oversee business and technology coverage here at the Huffington Post Media Group and I'm writing in response to your July 11 post about our aggregation practices.
Let me say, right off the bat, that your criticism of our post is completely valid: We should have either taken what you call 'the minimalist approach' or simply linked directly to your story. That is how we train our writers and editors to handle stories such as this.
We have made a very substantial investment in original reporting here, bringing in dozens of new writers in recent months. And while we will continue to curate the news for our audience, what occurred in this instance is entirely unacceptable and collides directly with the values that are at work in our newsroom. We have zero tolerance for this sort of conduct. Given that , the writer of the offending post has been suspended indefinitely.
More broadly, your complaint has prompted us to redouble our efforts to make sure our reporters and editors understand that this sort of thing is unambiguously unacceptable.
Please accept our apologies. Thank you for your time. I'm happy to discuss this further, as needed.
Peter S. Goodman
Executive Business Editor AOL Huffington Post Media Group
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.