Saturday, February 20, 2010

Are Aggregators Thieves?

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban caused a bit of a stir earlier this month when he said that Google and other content aggregators essentially are vampires that suck the blood of the media. The only way to put a stop to it, Cuban added, was to "put a stake through their gosh darn hearts."

"You guys are always looking for the next thing to save you," he told media players at a conference in New York. "Your core competency is you create news, you create content. You just have to stop offering your necks to the vampires."

It was a good headline for a day or two on most media sites, and the comments drew some fascinating critiques because Cuban is an investor in Mahalo, which leans heavily on aggregation to create content for its own website. Other than the particularly harsh language, there also was nothing new about the complaint. We've heard a similar story from Rupert Murdoch, Sam Zell, and a host of other people in traditional media who want to put pay walls up to prevent their content from being stolen.

But the essential question remains: Are aggregators really thieves?

Truth is, most media brands work very hard to get their work distributed. In my earlier years at Forbes magazine, we had a team of three full-time publicists who worked behind-the-scenes to get media pickup of stories, book writers and editors on radio and television shows, and get the brand maximum exposure. This was also true at BusinessWeek which had (and still has) it's own in-house public relations staff, as well as an external firm to promote BW journalism to prominent bloggers and other media organizations.

As long as aggregators credit the source and even link back to the original content, how is that any different than a media brand's own attempts to gain wider distribution of its stories through PR agents?

Take a look at three major players who smartly use aggregation as a part of their business models: The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and Newser. At all three of these news websites, aggregation is a core component of the content mix. HuffPo snatches paragraphs from pretty much every media outlet and blogger that has something worth saying and often rewrites what many say. The Daily Beast wouldn't be able to produce its intelligent and entertaining daily news digest, Cheat Sheet, without borrowing and stealing from other media. Indeed, it's little more than a smart rewrite of the day's most important or sexiest news from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Associated Press, Reuters, and other traditional media brands with an occasional credit to HuffPo or Politico. Yet, for The Daily Beast, it's one of the most prominent features on its home page and it's used to drive daily traffic to the site via RSS feed. In short, The Daily Beast is making money from the best work of other media outlets which invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually creating that content.

Newser, meantime, takes an entirely different approach. It produces no original content, other than the blogged opinions of founder and provocateur Michael Wolf. Everything else is largely a short and snappy two-paragraph rewrite of the day's most entertaining news. Wolf is candid about what he's doing: The "About" section for the site reports that "Newser is a news aggregator with brains. We select the best news stories from hundreds of sources all over the web, read them for you, and summarize them in two succinct, sharply written paragraphs or less." It's stock market coverage on a recent day, posted 35 minutes after the market's close, was a graf and three bullet points, all taken from The Wall Street Journal, which posted its account just 16 minutes earlier. A "review" of the new movie "Blood Done Sign My Name" opens with two short sentences followed by four grafs stolen from four reviews published by The Philadelphia Enquirer, New York Post, Variety, and Chicago Sun-Times. There are links to the original stories in all of these files--if you want them. So Newser not only credits the source, it essentially sends traffic to their sites—at least for the readers who want the full stories.

All of this is perfectly legal, falling within the rules of fair use. But is it ethical or moral? After all, Newser and other aggregators are profit-making enterprises whose business models are essentially dependent on the investment of billions of dollars to produce the content they steal.

I don’t believe its unethical and here’s why: 1) At least in the above examples, there is total transparency to what is going on, 2) The original source is given credit for the article, and 3) The aggregator provides highlighted ink sback to the original content, driving revenue-producing traffic back to the source.

This isn’t exactly what my high school English teacher would call plagiarism. Rather, it’s fulfilling the same aims of a publication’s PR department: getting wider distribution of content to enhance a brand’s image so that more readers will likely either buy the publication or go to its website. Whether those goals are achieved is another story.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Where Great Journalism Still Thrives

Over the past few weeks, I've had the honor and the privilege of judging many of the nation's best city and regional magazines for the annual awards handed out by the University of Missouri's J-School, my alma mater. And after reading quite a few of these magazines, I can say that I've been remarkably impressed, even surprised in some cases, with the magazines that typically report on the best chiefs, bartenders, or cosmetic surgeons in any given area of the country. Time after time, amid the listings of restaurants, clubs and spas, I've come across some of the best journalism in America: gripping narrative, compelling drama, and natural, vivid storytelling that draws you into something you never thought you would be interested in.

If I were teaching narrative writing, I wouldn't hesitate to assign any of these standout stories to my students. More importantly, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend these pieces to readers who cherish and respect the promise of what journalism can be when it is practiced at the highest level. These are pieces that I would have loved to edit myself, or even better, would have loved to had the joy to report and write.

"Soldier of Misfortune," by Beth Hawkins. Here is the highly compelling story of a guy, down on his luck, who went off to Iraq, not as a member of the U.S. military but as a paid private security guard for a contractor. The job ultimately cost him his life. He was captured by Iraqi insurgents, held for ransom, and ultimately tortured. I'll let you find out how this tragic story ends. Published by Minnesota Monthly, the story is a stunning example of great storytelling.

"Trashed: The Death of Michael York and How Heroin has Invaded the Chicago Suburbs," by Bryan Smith. Published in Chicago magazine, this gripping story brings home to suburbia the tragedy of drug use and addiction. It's the tale of a teenager whose body turned up in an alley on the west side of Chicago. The high school student died of an apparent overdose from heroin after a weekend party in a suburban mansion. To cover up the accident, his "friends" dumped the body in an alley in the snow face-down at the foot of a dumpster.

"Free Man," by Tony Rehagen. Published by Indianapolis Monthly, this is the story of a man who spent 23 years in prison, wrongly convicted of murder. The writer catches up with him two years after his release and writes a brilliantly evocative story of how hard if not impossible it is to put your life back once you're jailed--even when you never should have been in prison in the first place.

"The Last Days of My Left Breast," by Viva Las Vegas. Published by Portland Monthly, this candid story is the harrowing first-person tale of a young woman who discovers that she has breast cancer. Because she is a stripper in a city club, the loss of her left breast not only has traumatic emotional and physical consequences. There are economic issues as well. It's an exceptionally honest and well-written account by a non-journalist and it makes for gripping reading.

"Mike Leach is Thinking," by S.C. Gwynne. This Texas Monthly cover story deftly provides a multi-dimensional portrait of a pirate-crazy man who may be the best college football coach in the country. I am no football fan. In fact, as a lifelong rabid baseball fan, I rather dislike football. Yet I could not put this exceptionally-crafted profile down.

"The River Lady," by Linda Vaccariello. This story, published in Cincinnati magazine, is the fascinating tale of a woman whose body was pulled from the Ohio River three years ago. Yet, no one could identify who she was. "No one was missing her," as one investigator put it.

"Wrongful Death," by Jason Fagone. Yet another narrative that is almost impossible to put down, this piece is the behind-the-scenes story of the demise of one of Philadelphia's most famous law firms. Published in Philadelphia magazine, the drama opens when a young lawyer at the firm receives a simple text message from a friend: "sorry to hear about your firm."

"But the Dream Should Die," by Joe Keohane. A highly provocative yet convincingly argued essay that explains why Ted Kennedy should be the last Kennedy we ever elect. It smartly ends a powerful portfolio of stories in Boston magazine on Sen. Kennedy's life and legacy. As the headline of the piece puts it: "The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, but the dream should die."

So even in this age of budget cuts, layoffs, newspaper and magazine closings, journalism that informs, inspires and entertains is being published every day in both likely and unlikely places. Thank God for that.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why Ads on the iPad & Other Tablets Won't Make a Difference

Karsten Lemm, a San Francisco-based freelance writer who works mainly for the German newsmagazine Stern, makes a convincing case that my earlier post on the iPad gave short shrift to the advantages of tablet reading. As he puts it: "The Kindle is hardly a great device for displaying magazine content, and Amazon's conditions have been less than favorable to publishers. That's likely to change with increasing competition. The iPad, future Google Android tablets, and e-readers like Skiff and Plastic Logic Que give publishers at least a chance to offer a new kind of reading experience that people will be willing to pay for."

I hope Karsten is right, but I have strong doubts. The free genie is out of the bottle, and it will be extremely hard--if not impossible--to get people to pay for what they already get for free. Even an old print guy like myself has to make a confession: Far too often I'll peruse the contents of a magazine at a newsstand. If there's a story I'm keenly interested in reading, I'll pass on buying the magazine and simply go to the website. I've done this for The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated, to name a few. There has to be three of four stories I badly wanted to read in a magazine before I'll pay for it on the newsstand.

Others suggested that tablet reading will allow advertisers to reach consumers in new and different ways, creating greater revenue for content providers. The basic problem with this argument is that few advertisers have used websites to smartly do multi-media ads, even though the ability to do so has been there for years. Even if advertisers take greater advantage of the digital space on an interactive e-book reader, it still won't offset the loss of print advertising. So the essential problem confronting old media doesn't substantially change. It's costs are badly out of sync with current revenue.

Yes, it's true that production and distribution costs account for a high percentage of the cost structure bringing down traditional media. Ad Age recently quoted Google's Hal Varian who says that typically 53% of a newspaper's budget goes to printing for distribution--costs eliminated through digital distribution--compared with 35% on the "core" functions of news gathering, editorial and administration. But what he many not know is that in many instances, costs are so out of control in traditional media companies that if every editorial employee were eliminated, they would still bleed red.

As Kathy Gill (aka kegill) smartly points out in a response to my blog post, there are significant cost savings associated with digital distribution. Kathy reminds us of an ugly truth many in journalism prefer to ignore: that readers have never really fully paid for content, anyway. "For newspapers," she writes, "we subscribers have never paid for the content of the paper with our wallets, we paid for it with our collective eyes. We paid for the convenience of having the paper delivered to our door, whether or not that fee actually covered distribution costs." 

Today, we've trained a generation of readers not to pay for anything. With the exception of The Wall Street Journal, ESPN, Barron's and a few other niche sites, no one has cracked the code on the paid formula. Even The New York Times, which has the highest quality content on a consistent basis, hasn't figured out how to get money for its very valuable journalism. So there's little reason to think that the emergence of the iPad and a lot of competitive products will alter this reality.

I'm not trying to view this glass as half empty, as Chris Herot suggests, but I'm not very optimistic here from a financial point of view. I am, however, enthusiastic about the reading experience on a tablet based on my experience using the iPhone. It's a great and convenient way to access quality journalism and participate in community around that journalism. I suspect the iPad and its rivals will really ratchet up digital reading.