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.
Travers describes the type of highly targeted content aggregation undertaken by his editors as "a form of journalism."
"There is a lot of low-value aggregation on the Web, no doubt," he says. "It's very easy [for publishers] to add [a form of] aggregation to the mix that is not adding any [new value], but is consuming time for someone who has already seen those links, or [for whom] those links might be new, but are not covering new ground because it was covered better a year ago by someone else. So you have to know the beat [to successfully aggregate valuable content] just like you have to know the beat to produce original content."
Travers, who prefers the term "value-added aggregation" to "curation," believes smart aggregation can indeed be a cure for the overabundance of information on the Web.
"It's hard to talk in broad terms, but generally speaking there's much more stuff now online than there was eight years ago, so aggregation eight years ago might have been, 'Well, let's run everything we find,' and a lot of [the work involved] was the gathering. Now, you still have to do that gathering, but because of the sheer volume of [content out there] the emphasis is increasingly on the context, the filtering, the perspective."
It's not, he stresses, a job for "a couple of interns on the side."
In the defense industry, for instance, Travers says there are reams of public information that few people have the time or knowledge to comb through to pull out actionable content for defense contractors; in many cases, even official summaries of reports do a poor job of capturing the essential points for a b-to-b audience. In cases like these, where much of the content aggregated consists of primary sources (such as government reports or transcripts of congressional hearings), Travers says it can be tough to distinguish what his company does from, say, Bloomberg News, which Travers says is "trying to get into government" by filing reports based on many of those same primary sources. However, Travers sees an advantage in the expertise of staff knowledgeable about niche industries. "We think we know defense more than they do, and package it in a way that is even more actionable and structured … [and more] effective and useful to people in [the defense] industry."
Another example he gives is executive Q&A forums, where knowledgeable thought leaders are sharing critical advice with their peers. Many of these people do not have blogs or produce content in any other form, and their advice can cover specific situations. Good aggregation, he says, can pull out key content and present it in forms useful to readers seeking to drill down based on industry, business category or location.
Publishers looking to pursue aggregation as part of a business model must be sensitive to the "echo chamber effect," whereby they end up covering the news of an event or topic, rather than the event or topic itself. "Just aggregating other aggregation does not work so well," Travers says.
This might help explain why sites like the Huffington Post are moving to hire journalists, he points out. Even aggregators, he argues, are feeling the need to appear truly on top of—or even ahead of—the game.
As Keller puts it, " … some of the great aggregators … seem to be experiencing a back-to-the-future epiphany. They seem to have realized that if everybody is an aggregator, nobody will be left to make the real stuff to aggregate."
The Quest for More Content
Realizing original content still matters, however, does not necessarily mean adhering to old models. The profusion of "content farm" companies like Demand Media and Suite 101 have put the pressure on publishers to produce more content, whether in-house or by outsourcing. RR Donnelley, looking to expand its suite of services for publishers beyond printing and related solutions, acquired crowdsourced content-creation website Helium in June. Helium allows publisher clients to access stock and custom content created by a large freelance writing community.
"One of the challenges that publishers, catalogers and other organizations have told us that they are wrestling with is the unique demand for content creation associated with multichannel communications," says Ann Marie Bushell, president of RR Donnelley's CustomPoint Solutions Group. Publishers, she says, need to offer Web and social media content that goes beyond print editions; catalogers are looking to make websites destinations for customers seeking commentary and how-to advice; health care institutions are publishing newsletters and other materials for patients. It all adds up to opportunity for providers of inexpensive, targeted content.
"Helium puts content seekers in touch with a broad range of writers, for one-time or ongoing programs," she says. "The cost-effective service is an ideal complement to the traditional editorial development that forms the core of publishers' material. The use of Helium can also introduce publishers to fresh voices—and fresh voices to publishers."
Helium's "expansive editorial community" means it can offer high-quality content tailored to any delivery channel, which drives monetization through both search engine optimization (SEO), and paywall or subscription strategies, Bushell says.
Content: Ghost in the Machine?
Even more radical is the notion of "machine-generated" content—an idea being developed through Northwestern University's Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism and a startup based on the research conducted there, Narrative Science. Presenting at the American Magazine Conference (AMC) Innovation 2010 conference last fall in Chicago, Northwestern's Kristian Hammond demonstrated the capacity for software to turn data-heavy information (such as financial reports or baseball box scores) into readable news articles. The technology is not meant to replace traditional news reporting, he told attendees, but to expand coverage into areas previously neglected due to a lack of resources—such as hyper-local sports reporting. Hammond broached the idea of write-ups for every Little League baseball game in the country, in multiple languages. "The push here is to write into the 'long tail,'" he said.
The technology works through meta tagging and seeks to make obscure data more accessible by telling a story, he said. For example, logarithms would be created to report on sports games based on certain data, such as a game score of 11 to 1 being written up as a "blow out." (Hammond gave other examples that better explained how the process works, and how it's quite feasible.)
A spokesman for Narrative Science, Stuart Frankel, told Publishing Executive that the company will have additional news on its efforts later in 2011.
While all of this might leave writers and editors shaking in their boots, Bushell says these new models should not worry them too much.
By offering strategies for containing costs and driving revenue, she believes supplemental content services can "help to create a terrific environment for traditional and emerging editorial to complement one another."
"Remember, multichannel doesn't mean just reproducing content in all media—it means creating an expanded array of content that is tailored to the different delivery channels," she says.
Whether in writing for the 'long tail' or building out robust multichannel products, the message seems to be that these new content-creation strategies, at their best, serve publishers as they aim to expand into new digital frontiers, generating profits through a low-cost, high-revenue model that supplements, rather than replaces, existing content-creation structures.
"Publishers tell us that traditional editorial has nothing to be scared of in what Helium has to offer," Bushell says. "What probably scares traditional editorial is more the challenge facing publishers to balance their costs and revenues in a multichannel world."
A World of Curators
In a presentation at the recent MPA Digital: Technology conference, produced by The Association for Magazine Media (MPA) in New York, Matt Robson, SEO specialist at Hearst Magazines, outlined a number of trends pointing to a "disruption of media"—in the discovery, creation, presentation, distribution and monetization of content. All of these factors come to bear on publishers' strategy around content.
For instance, even those who decry aggregation cannot deny its appeal for users, as proven by the success of such sites as HuffPo, Slate and The Daily Beast, and must recognize that the collecting and customization of content will happen regardless of whether publishers do the curating or not. Applications like Flipboard and Google Reader allow individuals to control and compile their own menu of articles, videos, photographs and podcasts to consume on their own terms. "A lot of people who are news junkies are following hundreds of blogs," Robson noted. "It's not possible to check that many websites for updates, [but there are] new systems where blog feeds are brought directly to them."
Other examples cited by Robson drive the point home. The website Alltop, "an online magazine rack for your favorite topics," utilizes RSS feeds to compile hundreds of headlines by subject and allows users to create customized collections of feeds. (They call it "aggregation without aggravation.") Social media—especially Twitter—is becoming a primary content-delivery system for many people, as news and trending topics are tracked via a constantly updated feed. Tools are being developed that allow individuals to, in essence, become curators for others, in addition to customizing content for their own use. Sites like Storify and Scoop.it allow people to create their own hubs for information. "What WordPress did for blogging, this new wave of technology is going to do for curated publishing," Robson said. "You're kind of running your own media network."
Publishers must understand these user-driven systems, Robson said, in order to tailor their output to this new reality. In many cases, this means enabling more frequent audience engagement, even if it requires sacrificing some of the emphasis on unique content. "… I believe … publishers are focusing too much on original content," he said. "Particularly magazines will have their features that they write, maybe they get some coverage, maybe they get some people linking to them, [but] the question is, 'OK, I've read your feature, what reason do I have to return to your site tomorrow?' If you are on a 30-day monthly [print] cycle, and you are only publishing a set of features once every 30 days, there is not a compelling reason for me to engage with your brand more than once a month."
To help drive more frequent website visits, companies are beginning to do more linking out to other sources' content, despite a traditional bias against it. "There is a lot of resistance to that model in a traditional media mindset, which is still on the monthly cycle … [but] new companies, tech companies, news aggregators, they are very comfortable with linking out [because] it leads to better content, and people will come back when they know your site is a hub," Robson said. As part of this trend, Robson expects a broader range of publishers to embrace inclusion of links and aggregated content in their products.
On the content-creation front, Robson cites crowdsourcing to lower costs and "potentially make the content more relevant to the audience," as the Huffington Post does by "bartering the [exposure] they give their contributors [in exchange for] that content. They are not paying for it on a cash basis."
The message seems to be that in a multiplatform, social media-driven, SEO-optimized landscape, publishers need tools for building out a portfolio of content that is fresh, engaging and comprehensive. If unique, in-house content is, for many, still the foundation, materials gained through other channels can ensure audiences continue to beat a path to your door. PE