How Will Aggregating Hyenas Fare After They've Picked Over Carcasses of Content Providers?

Bob Garfield Ponders the Future of a New Form of Medium

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield

Talk about your surreal experiences.

I was on a panel recently about digital media. To my immediate right was Dan Abrams, TV lawyer and web aggregator, founder of the website Mediaite. To my left was Hilary Schneider, executive VP for the Americas at Yahoo. The subject was the future of journalism in a digital world.

This was like consulting hyenas on the future of a wounded wildebeest. They claimed to be super delighted with how well things were working out for them. What they failed to reckon with was how they'd fare once the wildebeest was dead and picked to the bone.

But one gets ahead of oneself, doesn't one? Let me first state that I was the only person on stage who believed that the future of journalism in the short to medium terms is dire, that journalism as a professional livelihood is circling the drain, that quality journalistic content, as a business, is unsustainable online.

The reasons are pretty simple:

  • The only quality journalism available, at least in this country, is from a few dozen newspapers and magazines, NPR, some alt weeklies, a few websites (, for instance) and a few magazine/website hybrids such as Atlantic. On TV, there is "The News Hour" and "Frontline" on PBS and that is it. Cable "news" is a wasteland (watch for a while and let me know when you see a reporter, you know, reporting). Network news, having taught cable how to cut costs and whore itself to ratings , isn't much better. Local TV news is live remotes from crime scenes and "Is Your Microwave Killing Your Hamster?"
  • Though online audiences are growing, editorial resources have been slashed left and right as monetizable traditional audiences evaporate. Almost none of the above institutions is meaningfully profitable online -- and likely never will be, because the prices they fetch for advertising are too low and, amid an ever-growing glut of supply, headed in the wrong direction.
  • Yes, good, rigorous reporting may someday emerge from the "crowd." And for the moment we can read quality content from the world over free online -- on native sites and aggregators like Google news, Huffington Post and Mediaite -- but since producing that content is costing more than the news organizations can bring in, the aggregatable material will gradually disappear. (See "wildebeest," above.)

So what do you suppose Dan Abrams had to say? "To suggest that digital media as a whole isn't going to be profitable is ridiculous. If you're doing good content and you've got devoted communities of people coming to your site, you're not only going to be successful, but profitable. I'm not doing this because it's a vanity project, I'm doing it because we're making a profit."

Well, not a profit right now, exactly. But in January. He swears.

But never mind that. Let's discuss "good" content. Look, I'm not here to denigrate the genuine reader interest in such headlines as "Joy Behar On Sharron Angle: 'She's Going To Hell, This Bitch!'" or "Time Traveler? Video Shows What Appears to Be a Woman Talking on Cell Phone in 1928." (That on the same Mediaite front page with "Great Moments in Journalism: CNN Reports On Sex Lives Disrupted by Bedbugs in NYC." I guess not everybody has Dan Abrams' gravitas.) Sure the stuff is juicy, but can we agree it is not the Pentagon Papers? It's not news of a school budget that cuts phys ed and libraries. It's not an exposé of redlining, or asbestos in hospitals or corruption by fire inspectors.

Cherrypicking tidbits to pander with is many things, but journalism isn't one of them. Of course, unlike Yahoo -- which bought Associated Content to generate "news" based on algorithmically imputed readers' interests -- at least Mediaite's pandering is hand-crafted, not automated.

This brings me to Hilary Schneider. She claimed that Yahoo news -- by lifting newspaper content and filling up the "leave a penny, take a penny" dish -- is a boon to publishers. And she talked up her pet Yahoo Newspaper Consortium, created to provide newspapers with Yahoo behavioral targeting data in exchange for the labors of their local sales forces. It's an ingenious idea that has yielded a nice bonus (though no game-changer) for a handful of newspapers, but apparently a financial fiasco for Yahoo itself.

At year's end, Schneider will be leaving Yahoo to pursue other opportunities. So, yes, fear for the wildebeest. But also for the hyena.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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