Journalism's Fake "Rewrite Problem"

A blog about business and economics.
Sept. 5 2013 8:47 AM

Journalism's Fake "Rewrite Problem"

The headquarters of the Washington Post newspaper is seen in downtown Washington, DC, August 7, 2013.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

An awful lot of journalists I've spoken to over the years with background in old media think they know what's wrong with the news business in the internet era, and I think they'll be heartened to learn that Jeff Bezos agrees with them. The problem is that aggregators at the Huffington Post can summarize your hard work:

[Bezos] said the newspaper faced two business problems: the Rewrite Problem and the Debundling Problem.
In the former, the newspaper could spend weeks or months on a project that a Web site like the Huffington Post could rewrite “in 17 minutes.”

I think people should be very skeptical that this Rewrite Problem is actually a big deal. The reason is that as widely believed as this story is, one organization that doesn't believe in it is the Huffington Post. The Huffington Post started with an aggregation-heavy content strategy and certainly continues to aggregate (as does anyone trying to succeed on the Web) but it's consistently invested in precisely the kind of journalism that allegedly doesn't work thanks to the Rewrite Problem. They have whole bureaus full of people doing original reporting. They do daily news type stories, but they also do more magazine-style enterprise features. I couldn't tell you the exact business logic behind all of these moves, but broadly speaking they do it because aggregation is commodity content and people want to get out of the commodity business.

My view is that what looks to a lot of writers like a problem of rewrites and aggregation is actually something more profound—it's a problem of competition.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.


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