Len Downie calls Arianna Huffington a parasite. She calls him a schoolyard intimidator.

Media criticism.
Sept. 23 2010 6:20 PM

Len Downie Calls Arianna Huffington a Parasite

The old media and the new media swap punches over the value of aggregation.

Leonard Downie Jr. Click image to expand.
Leonard Downie Jr.

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."

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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."

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