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.