Content Aggregation: Boon or Bane for Publishers?
In March, in a piece in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller compared the Huffington Post's business model—based mostly on aggregating news content—to piracy. Huffington Post President and Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington responded by calling his claims "lame" and "laughable." She might not have been laughing a few months later when media columnist Simon Dumenco shared his experience of being aggregated by the Huffington Post. One of Dumenco's columns was, he said, rewritten by HuffPo in such a way as to recycle virtually all of the substantive information in the original. While including a link to his column at the end, the rewrite drove just 57 page views to Dumenco's column on AdAge.com. A post on the much smaller website Techmeme (which borrowed just a few sentences from Dumenco's original column) linked to the article and drove 746 page views to the piece on AdAge.com.
This seemed to discount one of Huffington's core claims—that her style of aggregation is good for everybody because it creates traffic for content creators. But as the Techmeme post proves, aggregation, done a certain way, can do that very thing. So is it a boon or a bane for publishers, a threat or a new path to profitability? This could be a question asked of many new content-creation strategies, from the output of so-called "content farms" like Demand Media, which employ armies of freelancers to create SEO-optimized articles, to bold new attempts to produce automated "machine-generated" copy.
What Is Aggregation Anyway?
Even Keller acknowledges that aggregation, as a form of compiling and curating information, has a noble history in journalism. ("It kind of describes what I do as an editor," he writes.) But if journalists can be said to be, on some level, aggregators, can aggregators be journalists? That's the contention of Olivier Travers, CEO of Watershed Publishing. Watershed, founded in 2004, is a business-to-business (b-to-b) publisher that has built a highly successful model around aggregating information for "select, high-value audiences" in the marketing, retail and defense industry sectors.