The Future of Content Is Not Destination but Identity

MUD day 8:

There’s been a lot of excitement in the past week about the new Web publication The Verge. Founded by Joshua Topolsky and several other former Engadget staff, it’s been praised for its dynamic design and for features like StoryStream, which aggregates the site’s content into timelines. But if it succeeds, will it be due to great design, or inherently great stories? Does its future lie in becoming a great destination site, or in creating a unique identity for its content?

The Verge

When Topolsky appeared last Sunday on This Week in Tech, host Leo Laporte asked a key question. After suggesting that The Verge is what magazine design should be on the Web, or rather, what should replace magazine design, he asked whether it mattered. “You’ve made a great destination, but I just wonder: Do destinations matter anymore?” How he and many others now read content, he argued, was in aggregation: “So if there’s a great Verge article on the Jawbone Up, I will see it in my Twitter stream or in my RSS feed, I’ll read the article, but then I’ll leave the site.”

Though the design, usability, and coherence of site or publication design are still important, they matter less to the success of content than they used to. In an era when content is increasingly atomized and ubiquitous, the identity of that content becomes increasingly important. Traditionally, magazines were a collection of disparate items that relied on the container to give them a coherent identity. But containment doesn’t work on the Web. So how then can content serve its publishers?

The answer, I think, is that identity must be stamped into the content itself. More than ever, to rise above anonymous commodity content, it must be personal, individual, unique. People must be able to see immediately, for instance, that this content, wherever they find it, could only be from The Verge. The content must be imbued with the brand.

It seems to me that this is the biggest challenge for traditional publishers in adapting to new media is to rethink the value of their publications as destinations. Consider, for instance, what Ziff Davis Enterprise CEO Steve Weitzner recently told Folio: about his company’s move to digital-only publication: “”We will publish [eWeek] in the same way—it will go through the same editorial process, the stories will get vetted, they’ll be laid out by art, we just won’t print it or mail it.” Is that the way to go digital? To simply plop the magazine model into a digital space? Somehow, I doubt it. The container doesn’t matter anymore. Only the content counts.

Why Aggregation Is Not Distasteful

What is it about aggregation that riles so many journalists? I understand the competitive motives behind the objections of legacy publishers like Rupert Murdoch and the New York Times. They don’t like the idea of anyone “harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material,” as Times editor Bill Keller wrote. But why should individual writers, who have much to gain from the exposure aggregation can provide, find it offensive?

To judge from a TABPI Twitter debate I took part in last month, one reason for some may be that they don’t understand it. After offering a few mild criticisms of Keller’s anti-aggregation editorial, I received this comeback:

“If stories were aggregated & printed to distribute, I think people would find that distasteful. Curious why Web is different.”

It takes a little while to unwind the argument of this Tweet, even more gnomic than usual for this ultraconcise medium. I doubt that the writer really objects to the authorized collecting and reprinting of articles: Reader’s Digest popularized that concept nearly a century ago, and until recently, at least, plenty of subscribers seemed to like the idea.

More likely the writer was thinking not of legitimate republication, but collecting and reprinting entire articles without permission or payment. That would indeed be distasteful; in fact, it would be theft. But in this respect, few would argue that the Web is any different. You only need to review the online outrage over the swiping of a blog post by Cooks Source last fall to see that. But this is not what aggregation is about.

When people talk approvingly of online aggregation and curation, they are referring not to copying, but citation, quotation, and commentary. The practice takes a variety of forms, but straightforward examples include Digg, TechMeme, and B2B Marketing Zone. The nearest print analog would be those dimly remembered volumes in library reference rooms that indexed articles from journals, magazines, and other periodicals. Except perhaps among library scientists, they were never best sellers, but neither were they distasteful.

Where the Web is different, of course, and the reason why aggregation has become so popular, is that unlike the print versions, you don’t have to visit your local library, fumble your way through the stacks, and hope you can find the right issue of the magazine with the story you seek. Instead, you simply click on the link and start reading.

That is a powerful difference. Any journalist who ignores or deprecates such a useful tool for sharing information with readers is doing them a disservice. It’s honest work that benefits readers and writers alike.


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.