Journalism, Aggregation, and Doing Things with Words

There has been a burst of blog posts today discussing the arguments for and against aggregation in journalism. Three writers in particular stand out. First, in the order I encountered them, was Robert Niles’s post in the Online Journalism Review, followed by Mary Hamilton’s response on her blog, Metamedia. The last is Aaron Bady’s deeply analytical post on zunguzungu.

I hadn’t intended to leap into this particular debate, and was satisfied with a retweet or two. But when Hamilton asked for details on my mildly critical take on her piece, I found myself unable to adequately explain myself in even a series of tweets. Hence this blog entry.

In my retweet of Ian Bissel’s highlighting of Niles’s piece, I called it a smackdown. Then when retweeting The Copestone Team’s mention of Hamilton’s post, I referred to it as a “missing-the-point smackdown” of Niles’s smackdown. When Hamilton @replied me (twice) to ask how she was missing the point,  the limitations of Twitter made it difficult to know whether she was offended or looking for constructive debate. I’ll guess, though, that it’s the latter, and that something more than a 140-character response will be welcome both to her and other readers. (And for the benefit of any accidental readers, aggregation, per the Nieman Journalism Lab, is “the practice of bringing together pieces of news and information from elsewhere on the web into a single news source.”)

Niles fashions his piece as an open letter to journalists with the cheeky title “Whining Isn’t Winning.”  How can any of them complain about aggregation, he asks, when “all reporting is, in essence, aggregation.” That is, rather like aggregation, reporting can be defined as “the act of collecting information from multiple sources for inclusion within a news report.”

As Hamilton stresses, she doesn’t disagree with most of Niles’s thoughts on aggregation. What she objects to, beyond his “aggressive tone” (which we’ll come back to), is his “semantic land-grab” in “redefining the word ‘aggregation’ to cover all forms of information management and presentation.” As she puts it neatly in her title, “Words mean things: no, all journalism is not aggregation.”

Nothing could be more true—in the literal sense. But here’s where Hamilton may be missing Niles’s point.

Now it could be the case that he intends the word aggregation to be an all-purpose stand-in for journalism. But I take his use of the word—and his “aggressive tone”—as rhetorical. She sees his strategy as an attempt “to conflate something that is valuable but not well-regarded [aggregation] with something which is already seen as respectable [journalism].” I see it as something else: an effort to show that the basis of much of what we value in traditional journalism is little different from that of aggregation.

In “Why Arianna Huffington is Bill Keller’s Somali Pirate,”Aaron Bady takes a more direct, if also more densely academic, route than Niles to the same destination. It’s not that all journalism is aggregation, but that all journalists are, he writes, “thieves of words.” In Bady’s view, “at the core of the journalistic process is the act, inescapably, of taking other people’s texts, weaving them together, and then placing them under your byline (with appropriate citation) and profiting from the activity.”

Closely examined, Bady says, distinctions between original and unoriginal reporting are arbitrary and rooted in social convention. To illustrate, he quotes from an academic paper by media culture professor C. W. Anderson (pdf):

“The differences between an ‘aggregator’ and an ‘original reporter’ are never as clear in actual practice as they are during testimony in front of a public commission…. Once we shift our analytical lens from the domain of rhetoric to the domain of practice, the complexity of the distinction between aggregation and original reporting becomes even more tangled.”

Bady does not argue that there aren’t distinctions worth making. But he suggests that to insist on the absolute nature of such distinctions is to fuel the arguments of those who “find it necessary to lay claim to being Real Journalists by conjuring up the figure of the Not Real Journalist, the aggregator they gain status by demonizing and othering.”

While on one level it may be useful to regard aggregation and journalism as things that are distinct but respectable, on another—where the aim is to persuade traditional journalists to accept aggregation—it may be more productive to argue the two things are one and the same. The latter, I take it, is Niles’s strategy.

Yes, words mean things. But (as J. L. Austin argued) they can also be used to do things. And I think Niles is using them, mindless of their definitions, to achieve an end he and Hamilton alike agree is worthwhile: undemonizing aggregation.


6 thoughts on “Journalism, Aggregation, and Doing Things with Words

  1. Hi John, and thanks for such a thoughtful an thought-provoking post – you were right in your surmise that I was hoping for constructive debate.

    Interestingly, the Nieman Lab definition of aggregation that you’ve used makes precisely the point that I wanted to make. It is a practical definition, and it requires both the information being aggregated and the eventual single source to be “on the web”.

    This is where, and why, I disagree with the Bady quote you’ve picked out here. It is not hard to distinguish aggregation from reporting, as long as you don’t redefine the word to mean something academic rather than something practical. I have done both; at no point would it have been hard to tell you which I was doing. And this redefinition is unhelpful to my mind because it elides substantial, important differences in the skills, tools, support structures and so on which are necessary for both different, valuable tasks to be done well.

    It is possible, as you suggest, that Niles intends his “all journalism is aggregation” purely as metaphor. But I question, strongly, the wisdom of doing so. I don’t believe those words will work as intended, if that is indeed his intention. If the aim is to persuade executives they should invest in aggregation, then teaching them to misunderstand the term will lead to problems in implementation.

    If the aim is to “undemonise aggregation”, then I do not see how he is helping here: his descriptions of ideas for presenting and curating information bear little resemblance to the types of aggregation that news organisations are frightened of, and as I said, I feel conflating the two is an attempt to redefine the term to be less scary, not to change the minds of those reading. If it were truly the latter, I’d expect to see at least some discussion of recognised, problematic, disruptive aggregation – Google News, @acarvin, how you could learn from high-profile examples.

    And, of course, if his glib turn of phrase is simply linkbait, then he’s done something right. 😉

  2. Thanks, Mary, for your comment. I think you may be right about linkbait, which is perhaps all I was really trying to say!

    But I think both Niles and Bady have in their sights those who oppose aggregation as immoral and unethical. If those opponents can’t be brought to see that aggregation and traditional journalism spring from the same impulses and share much of the same DNA, I can’t see how they will ever accept it. But perhaps we can just let them fade away and not worry about it…

  3. Hi John:

    I enjoyed the spirited latest outburst concerning aggregation vs. real journalism.

    But for B2b publishers/editors, I think there is a more pressing concern pertaining to content creation. And I also think the observation that all traditional journalists do is repeat other people’s words definitely misses the boat. In the B2B field, journalists have to work much harder than newspaper types to gather pertinent information. Quite often, “repeating words” is the end product of lots of prior enterprise reporting.

    But that is a discussion for another time. The point B2B has to get its head straight about in terms of aggregation/curation is the degree to which it should dominate e-news content we produce.

    In fact, if our editorial troops had sufficient staff to do a bang-up job, “original” content would account for the largest percent of e-news delivered every week. In whatever field is served, B2B editors should have the access to reach out to the industry for original content . . . as opposed to relying on aggregation to fill space.

    I guess I am one of those “dinosaurs” you younger guys refer to when the subject of aggregation arises. As far as I am concerned, aggregated content serves a useful purpose, but for many B2B sites, it appears to be a crutch in lieu of being able to deliver something better.

    Regards from the Stone Age!!!

    Howard Rauch, President
    Editorial Solutions, Inc.

  4. It’s nice that someone considers me a “younger guy.” Thanks!

    But this isn’t a new problem for B2B, is it? How many magazines have you seen over the years that relied on lightly edited product and press releases, vendor submissions, and summaries of public documents? Of course aggregation can be used as a crutch–but that’s a problem inherent in B2B publications, not aggregation itself.

  5. Hi John:

    True . . . behind my ranting was the realization that B2B’s falling short in delivering original content does not reflect any specific causal effect brought about by aggregation.

    On the other hand, “youngster,” I am taking advantage of a perceived opportunity to remind B2Bers that good things will come first to those sites that produce information clearly unavailable elsewhere. And when we eventually manage to do that, I guess what we print will receive more attention as a source from all those aggregators in search of original information!

    Howard R.

  6. Aggregation has some useful purposes, such as a site or email newsletter that compiles articles from numerous sources and provides summaries of those articles with direct links to the full stories on the individual web sites. I subscribe to several of these.

    And newspaper journalists have since forever aggregated content when they publish the original stories written by AP, UPI, Reuters, and Bloomberg. You may not call that aggregation, however.

    Are we really talking about the writing of one story that uses the content previously published by more than one web site? Definition is important and this one may not be the best.

    I prefer to say the distinction lies not in whether the material is original or not, or whether aggregation is any form is ideal or not, but whether the source material is primary or secondary. Quality stuff has more primary sources than secondary sources, whether it is breaking news or a longer piece that takes time to report and write. And using primary sources, I believe, requires more work.

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