Worrying about aggregators

By Felix Salmon
May 18, 2011
Lauren Kirchner and David Plotz talk to each other:

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This is what happens when high-minded journalists like Lauren Kirchner and David Plotz talk to each other:

LK: Do you ever fear that there will be, if not more websites, more people on staff at websites who are devoting their days to linking and summarizing, more than people producing original content? What if we run out of people doing original content and there’s nothing left to link to?

DP: That’s one of the things that I think about when I’m talking to young journalists, is that so many of them are going to go into jobs that are not reporting jobs, or even editing jobs—they are aggregation jobs. That’s a worry.

Plotz does go on to say, quite rightly, that “there’s been just a massive proliferation of new journalistic content.” Kirchner’s dystopia of a world with “nothing left to link to” has never been more distant. But at the same time, Plotz seems to agree with Kirchner that if you’re linking and summarizing, you’re not producing original content, and the rise of such activity is worrying.

I don’t like repeating myself, but I’m too lazy to rewrite this, and it was buried in a much longer piece when I wrote it last September:

The biggest thing that’s missing in the journalistic establishment is people who are good at finding all that great material, and collating it, curating it, adding value to it, linking to it, presenting it to their readers. It’s a function which has historically been pushed into a blog ghetto, and which newspapers and old media generally have been pretty bad at. And of course old media doesn’t understand blogs in the first place, let alone have the confidence or the ability to incorporate such thinking into everything they do.

Think about it this way: reading is to writing as listening is to talking — and someone who talks without listening is both a boor and a bore. If you can’t read, I don’t want you in my newsroom. Because you aren’t taking part in the conversation which is all around you.

When journalists apply for jobs today, they’re usually given some kind of writing test. Certainly the people hiring them will look at their clips. Everybody cares about how good a writer you are. So long as you write well, it seems, that’s all that matters.

But if I were hiring, the first thing I’d look at would be the prospective employee’s Twitter feed. What are they linking to? What are they reading? If they’re linking to great stuff from a disparate range of sources, if they’re following smart people on Twitter, if they’re engaged in the conversation — that’s hugely valuable. More valuable, in fact, than being able to put together an artfully-constructed lede.

So I’m not worried in the slightest by the rise of aggregation jobs, and of people devoting their days to linking and summarizing. That’s a crucial journalistic skill and service, it’s what readers want, and there aren’t nearly enough people who are good at it. It’s certainly much more useful than being the 35th reporter in a press conference, writing down whatever the Important Person up front is saying, or being part of some media scrum trying to get a quote out of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer.

What people like David Plotz ought to do, I think, is start treating great aggregators with the same respect with which they treat great journalist-writers. The value added is greater, and the skillset is rarer. But it’s going to take a while to get there.

Update: Kirchner responds, via email:

You, accidentally or not, took one small part of my Q&A with David Plotz out of context and, in doing so, misrepresented the entire gist of the conversation. The Q&A was conducted to supplement a chapter of the recently-released Grueskin/Seave report, a chapter that explores the topic of aggregation in news websites. I chose to talk to Slate editor David Plotz for a supplementary piece precisely because Slate was one of the very first pioneers of news aggregation, back when it launched in 1996-97.  Plotz stresses the value of aggregation throughout the conversation–that was, in fact, the whole point of the conversation.

Plotz actually also spoke at length about what makes a good “Slatest” editor, and the talent that Josh Vorhees brings to the task of choosing and framing stories for the list — an exchange that I ended up editing out for length, but not because I disagreed with him. Then, at the end of that conversation, I asked one of those devil’s advocate hypotheticals, “Do you ever worry that we’re spending too much time on this” kind of thing. I was not representing my own opinion (or any kind of “dystopian” worldview) when I asked that question; I was just offering it up as a question.  He said that “no,” it is not a worry, and that’s where it ended.  So I found it strange that you picked out that exchange and represented our conversation as two journalists “worrying” about aggregation.


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Every new fad spawns a bubble as the market evolves, and then there is consolidation. So aggregators will grow for a while, and then most will go out of business or merge with others, and then most of the people working for them will move on to other jobs. It’s not anything to worry about. The more aggregators that remain, the more demand there will be for original content (unless the aggregators are all owned by Fox, in which case all the “content” will be circular links originated by talking points).

Hopefully, that inevitable consolidation will filter out conversations like the quoted one which inspired this column.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I have to wholeheartedly agree: old media is mostly good at finding the news and reporting it, but generally not so good at analysing and applying a wider lens to any given story. Business reporting is probably the worst. On a daily basis, false causality is being pushed out as fact, requiring debunking by others.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive

Maybe I’m not understanding properly, but Mr. Salmon is advocating that we should have fewer direct sources to stories and all other resources should be directed at Op/Ed on the direct story? I thought that the reduction of media (ie that only 3 or 4 major conglomerates controlling all news source material) was a terrible thing that led to the corruption of the media and a general mistrust of the media…

While I love reading colour on topics (hey, I’m reading this aren’t I) it’s not more important than the actual news event. Discussion is important, but having the sources leads to meaningful discussion, not blathering about topics with little facts in the mix a la Fox.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

In many ways aggregation has already hit mainstream journalism.

So many times news stories are no more than rejigged press releases, and in the recent run up to the UK Referendum on Electoral Reform, the main UK TV News gatherer, the BBC, reported on what the No and Yes campaigns said, but didn’t analyse any of it. In this way they propagated the lies and failed to ask any difficult questions. Their idea of balance was to give equal time to what each side were saying, and hardly any to what the Referendum was all about in case their impartiality was impuned.

In the written Press, an increasing share of investigative journalism seems to be getting on a company’s mailing list to receive PR blurb, or joining a creative writing group to invent more lies to print – or generating stories through illegal stings or phone hacking.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

How much do you want to bet their favorite blogger is Romenesko, a classic aggregator (and a great one at that).

Posted by Digidave | Report as abusive

I absolutely totally agree with this post. There is a huge amount of information in the public domain — much more than any human being can know. Looking up this information serves exactly the same social function as shoe leather reporting.

I especially wish I wrote the last line about the press conference.

Unfortunately much print journalism lives in the past century (mid to late 20th not 19th really kids it used to be that bad). It is as if all newspapers need a correspondent at a press conference to find out what was said. And they have these poor kids travel around the country with candidates when one pool reporter could report if the candidate flashed the audience during his stump speech or whatever the news they expect to obtain is supposed to be.

I have the impression that journalists who have no respect for aggregating are often embarrassed in debates with, say, bloggers, as the bloggers can point to facts in the public record which show that the anti-aggregation journalists are wrong. I mean they would be embarrassed if they didn’t ignore the debate. One example, managing editor of Time who said that Americans want to look forward when most respondents in a poll said the opposite
or the famous case of Joe Klein who didn’t have the time or the expertise to read a bill and relied on an anonymous source to say what was in it (but it’s OK because he ran it past a Democrat). General rule is don’t mess with Glenn, but, the point is Greenwald isn’t a reporter but, when he debates with reporters, he’s the one who knows the facts.

Posted by robertwaldmann | Report as abusive