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some thoughts on the future of digital journalism

I was recently asked by the publisher of a mid-sized newspaper that I used to work for to critique the paper’s website. I went further than that and offered my thoughts on the future of newspaper websites in the Internet age. I’ve made a couple edits and took out the name of the paper, not because there’s anything private or confidential in this, but I just don’t want to distract from my argument.

Regarding the website. The New York Times’ David Carr had a good line about the Huffington Post the other day:

I’ve written before that The Huffington Post may be one of the fastest build-outs of an editorial brand in history, all the while complaining that it derived a lot of value from digitally kidnapping the work of others.
But I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t matter what I think is right and wrong, or what I think constitutes appropriate aggregation or great journalism. The market is as the market does.

I think Carr is right, unfortunately. A few years ago I was disappointed in this trend of how some reporters would take other outlets’ content and repackage it without doing very much (or any) original reporting of their own. Everything would be appropriately attributed, but it still seemed … icky. When I covered national news for the New York Daily News, I would always try to do my own reporting, even if I was just duplicating the work of other news outlets.

But more and more Internet sites are adopting this new formula, including the Daily News. Also look at the Daily Mail, Digital Journal, JimRomenesko.com, the International Business Times, the Gawker media family of sites, the Drudge Report, the Gothamist family of blogs, numerous tech blogs, the Poynter Institute’s Mediawire, the Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet, Forbes.com, GlobalPost.com, BusinessInsider.com and so on. Like it or not, aggregation seems to be one of the few formulas that work on the Internet. (Sometimes, very well — Romenesko was I think earning a six-figure salary when he was at Poynter).

I don’t know if you followed the minor flap over how Forbes.com “stole” a 6,700-word New York Times magazine story on Target’s consumer research practices. Forbes.com condensed the story, focusing on its most sensational element: How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did. It probably took the writer an afternoon – while the original story, which had a lackluster headline, was the result of months of work. The repackaged article drew around a million page views, earning Forbes an estimated $15,000 in advertising revenue.

Under current U.S. intellectual property laws, this type of appropriation seems to be legal, because news and facts can’t be copyrighted. I don’t see this changing, for better or for worse.

Outside of journalism, you also see aggregation sites succeeding in other fields: I search for airfares using Kayak.com and Hipmunk.com, scan for jobs using job-aggregation website Indeed.com, buy baseball tickets using ticket aggregator fansnap.com and check movie reviews on Rottentomatoes.com and metacritic.com.

Basically this is just a long-winded way of saying that like it or not, I think aggregation is the wave of the future. As Carr says, it doesn’t matter if we think it’s right or wrong, great journalism or not. It’s a proven business model, and the market is as the market does. It’s like outsourcing and the loss of American manufacturing jobs to China: A trend that’s going to inexorably continue.

So my advice is, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. [Your newspaper] should get in front of the aggregation and outsourcing trends by hiring a bunch of Chinese teenagers at 5 cents a story to repackage the work of [several competitors].

Just kidding. Kind of.

Anyway, that is my two cents about where I see digital journalism headed. I wish I could make a different prediction and say I think the Internet will eventually support and pay for expensive, high-quality journalism. But I don’t think it will, so I’d encourage you to do more with aggregation and repackaging. I think there’s ways to do so ethically and with proper attribution, like the Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet does. A local version, maybe?

A couple more thoughts: Five or 10 years ago, many people, including myself, thought that maybe online advertising would be eventually be the savior of newspapers; that all they had to do was ride out the conversion to online and eventually ad revenues would be there to support them. But it’s not working out that way. Newspapers’ online advertising sales have stalled amid broader weakness in the online display advertising industry. Last week Microsoft announced its first-ever loss as a public company after a $6.2 billion write-down of advertising firm aQuantive, which it had bought for $6.3 billion in 2007. Reuters reports:

The average cost to reach 1,000 people with an online display ad fell to about $11.50 at the end of 2011 from $13.35 in late 2009, according to SQAD Inc, which tracks negotiated ad deals. In July 1998, Yahoo was getting about $25 per thousand, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Basically there’s been an explosion of advertising space from ad exchanges and from Facebook, which made $3.2 billion selling ads last year. This is pushing the cost of ads down, putting more pressure on newspapers.

The publisher I wrote to has implemented a “soft” paywall (you get a couple of articles for free, then have to start paying), which may help bring in subscriptions, but I think it’s too soon to say whether that’ll bring in enough to revenue support a full-fledged local newspaper. Meanwhile we can certainly predict where the advertising revenue that has been newspaper’s mainstay will be going: Down.

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