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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