Arianna Huffington could scarcely control her joy Thursday morning at Leonard Downie Jr.'s description (PDF) of aggregator sites—specifically the Huffington Post —as "primarily parasites living off journalism produced by others."
Huffington loves nothing better than the opportunity to denounce traditional media leaders as clueless dinosaurs who yearn for the good old days when they were in charge. She took off at Downie at once, telling Politico, "Once again, some in the old media have decided that the best way to save, if not journalism, at least themselves, is by pointing fingers and calling names."
Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, worries in his James Cameron Memorial Lecture that new media, having attached themselves to old media like sea lampreys, intend to suck the life out of them.
"The aggregators fill their websites with news, opinion, features, photographs and video that they continuously collect—some would say steal—from other national and local news sites, along with mostly unpaid posting by bloggers who settle for exposure in lieu of money," Downie said. (Emphasis in the Downie transcript.)
Huffington defends the Huffington Post as being about so much more than mere aggregation. She boasts about its original reporting by paid journalists and about its "300 original blog posts a day." Plus, Huffington crows, her site is well within the "fair use" provisions of copyright law, so bugger off, Len Downie.
Downie's invocation of the word parasite conjures images of tapeworms, ticks, and leeches feasting on a host to its detriment. But is the Huffington Post really guilty of parasitism, or is it engaging in commensalism, deriving nourishment from another species without harming it? Or should the charge against the site be amensalism—that is, depriving another organism of food, such as when a towering plant destroys a smaller plant by depriving it of sunshine?
To extend this biology lesson, we ought to investigate whether the two media species—the daily newspaper and the aggregator—have a symbiotic relationship. That's the interpretation Huffington is selling. Heralding the "value of the link economy," she'd have critics believe that HuffPo does other news sites a favor by summarizing their content and linking back to them, thereby boosting their page views.
As much as I admire the work published by legacy news organizations like the Washington Post, and as much as my news values parallel Downie's, his speech does not arouse my sympathies. (Disclosure: The Washington Post Co. owns Slate.) To begin with, every edition of the Washington Post (and most newspapers) contains "parasitical" copy. They're called the editorial page and the op-ed page. A whole section of derivative editorials, opinion, and book reviews runs in the Sunday Post.
Second, Matt Drudge has been proving daily since about 1996 that a page serving a wide array of headlines linking to breaking news, political reportage, insane weather, celebrity outrages, and pure sensationalism could appeal to tens of millions of loyal readers. The Washington Post or any other legal media organization could have destroyed him by using their superior resources to create a better, faster version of his site that served a similar audience. But why haven't they? Similarly, at any time since 2005, when the Huffington Post went live, the Post or other major media outlets could have broken the site's back with a similar editorial strategy. That they haven't suggests that they 1) don't have the stomach—or talent—for that sort of work or 2) don't think the money is worth the bother.
For some legacy media companies, aspects of what the Huffington Post, Gawker, Matt Drudge, and others do is just too low-rent, sensationalistic, and people-pleasing for them to imitate. Oh, a newspaper like the Washington Post will gladly publish a daily sports section filled with pandering, civically useless entertainment for the city's sports fans. It will happily publish a comics section for children of all ages. Its parent company will produce a free tabloid (the Express) if that's what it takes to repel a competing free tabloid (the Washington Examiner). It will even tart up its Style section with a bubbly column called "Celebritology."
But going down-market on the Web with silly slide shows, celebrity news, and "titillating gossip and sex" (as Downie describes it) just doesn't pass muster at the Washington Post Co. and most media companies like it. The Post Co. vectors in the other direction. Almost every Web startup or acquisition by the company has been, like the Post itself, a mid- or up-market venture (Slate, The Root, Slate V, Foreign Policy, WhoRunsGov.com, ReachForTheWall.com, the late Big Money, the late LoudounExtra, the late Sprig, et al.).
What the Huffington Post's success teaches the Washington Post—and what the Post refuses to learn—is that not every reader wants to read a 1,600-word report on the latest political scoop. Many would prefer a concise summary of the reporter's findings. If readers can't find concise summaries in their own newspapers, they'll look elsewhere. There's a long—if scurrilous—tradition in American journalism of stealing the other guy's story and calling it your own. In the United Kingdom, the tradition of lifting with little or no attribution is almost a religion, and somehow quality journalism has survived. That's not a defense of copy-pinching, mind you; it's an observation. I hate copy-pinching as much as Downie does. But rather than bellyaching from the high moral ground about the aggregators, why doesn't Downie suggest media companies compete against them? They're bigger. They're smarter. They're more experienced. And they create so many scoops and so much high-quality content that they have distinct advantages—a respected news brand, timeliness, experienced editors—over aggregators when it comes to fully exploiting their work on the Web.
But they don't. Most newspaper Web sites are astonishingly slow about updating their home pages. There's a reason people go to the constantly refreshed HuffPo and Drudge Report home pages throughout the day for news—and to MSNBC.com and CNN.com. It's called news sense. If the WashingtonPost.com home page had half the vitality of HuffPo, it could squash Arianna overnight.
Instead of tweezing ticks like the HuffPo off its body, the Washington Post should load its musket and hunt the pack of lions who live in a glass tower across the Potomac River at Allbritton Communications. Allbritton has boxed the Post in on several editorial—and advertising—sides. It owns the local ABC-TV affiliate; a 24-hour local cable news channel; Politico (vending political news in both print and on the Web); and a newly launched local site, TBD.com. (Politico's founding editors were Posties who took their idea to Allbritton. To be fair to Downie, he mentions Politico semi-favorably in his talk.)
Just this month, Politico's Web site added two opinion columnists, Joe Scarborough and Michael Kinsley, the founder of Slate, further outflanking the Post. If Allbritton were to add serious sports coverage to the bundle, and purchased wire copy for business and foreign news, it would be on its way to producing a Post replacement.
Beware not the parasite, legacy media. Beware the predator.
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