Like it or not, aggregation is part of the future of media

Arianna Huffington by World Economic Forum

Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington

There’s been a lot of commentary flying around about a recent incident in which The Huffington Post (s aol) “over-aggregated” a piece from Advertising Age, including a complaint from the original writer, an apology from one of the Huffington Post’s new senior editors, and the suspension of the HuffPo writer responsible for the post. This incident has proven to be another handy stick for traditional media outlets to beat The Huffington Post with, since it has become the poster child for the negative aspects of aggregation. But it doesn’t change the fact that aggregation, broadly speaking, is a crucial — and fundamentally valuable — part of the future of media.

This particular case got its start when Simon Dumenco, who writes a media column for Advertising Age, complained about a Huffington Post piece that seemed to pull most of the facts from his original article and reproduce them verbatim, without giving much credit to the magazine or adding anything of value to the original. Dumenco’s column, entitled “What It’s Like to Get Used and Abused by the Huffington Post,” described how he had put together a piece in June — using stats from Trendrr to talk about trending topics — and then not long afterward, The Huffington Post published a piece summarizing the article.

Disingenuous links and cherrypicked content

Although the HuffPo mentioned Advertising Age specifically in its post, and included a link to Dumenco’s original article at the bottom, the Ad Age writer was still incensed. The link at the bottom of the HuffPo piece, he wrote, was “disingenuous… because Huffpo had already cherrypicked all the essential content” from his article. Dumenco also noted that while some aggregators like The Huffington Post defend what they do based on the traffic they send by linking, the rewritten Ad Age piece only sent a measly 57 pageviews to the original source of the article. He wrote:

[G]eez, this is grade-school-level pathetic! This is akin to those lazy-ass and/or dumb kids in the fifth grade who would ask if they could copy off my homework or would “write” term papers by rephrasing the Encyclopaedia Britannica (pre-Wikipedia).

In a follow-up, the Ad Age columnist criticized The Huffington Post for suspending the writer of the article that cribbed from his piece. He suggested that this was hypocritical, given the fact that this kind of aggregation” was a routine part of the HuffPo’s approach — as confirmed by several other examples Dumenco mentioned, as well as comments from unidentified Huffington Post staffers to Gawker and other websites. Dumenco thanked Peter Goodman, the executive editor of Huffington Post (and former editor at the Washington Post) who apologized, but said that “unethical aggregation is essentially embedded in the very DNA of The Huffington Post.”

Arianna, the queen of aggregation

Needless to say, this isn’t the first time The Huffington Post has been accused of “over-aggregation” (whatever that is). New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote a passionate rant about the online media outlet and its practices, in which he called founder Arianna Huffington “the queen of aggregation.” But as I pointed out in a post at the time, Keller’s invective cleverly ignored the fact that most journalistic publications like the New York Times engage in aggregation all the time — but they call it “journalism.” Do they routinely rewrite other people’s material? The NYT may not, but lots of papers do, particularly in Britain, as one Forbes columnist has noted:

[F]rom the English point of view of this, there’s no opprobrium attached to it. This is simply how the business works, your story, your scoop, lasts only until it hits the streets, when someone will pick it up, rewrite it and publish it.

Is that kind of thing defensible? Perhaps not. But my point is that it happens even in traditional media — and the justification for smart aggregation of all kinds in digital media is even stronger. There are so many sources of content available, from blogs to traditional sources to Twitter and everything in between, that aggregation is almost a necessity. Anyone who thinks that they can retain anything like a “scoop” for more than a matter of minutes in this environment is deluding themselves.

In a sense, Dumenco is right when he says that aggregation is embedded in the DNA of The Huffington Post — because it is. Is some of that aggregation “unethical?” Undoubtedly. The Ad Age writer uses the example of a HuffPo piece based on a Playboy article that essentially reproduces the entire article in rewritten form, which doesn’t seem kosher at all. But I would argue that Dumenco’s own example isn’t as clear cut: the Huffington Post summarized the piece, yes, and included many of the facts from it — but the Ad Age piece was much longer, had a chart and many more details. And the Huffington Post did mention the magazine and link to it.

That particular Huffington Post piece may not be a great example, but much of what we call aggregation is extremely useful, such as the aggregation (broadly speaking) that Andy Carvin of NPR does of tweets from the Middle East — or the Storify modules that writers have created about a variety of incidents, in which they pull together quotes and pictures and videos about a news event. That’s clearly aggregation, but not the kind Dumenco and The Huffington Post’s critics are talking about.

When is it aggregation and when is it curation?

It seems as though when we like it we call it “curation,” and when we don’t like it we call it “aggregation.” Either way, it’s become a crucial part of the online media ecosystem, whether it’s a headline aggregator like Techmeme, or a broader aggregator like Google News, (s goog) or sites that pull together the major news stories of the week and try to make sense of them. All of those things have value — but how much value? And does the value that is produced accrue to the reader, or to the original publisher? In ideal cases it would be both, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case.

At the bottom of much of the criticism about The Huffington Post and other aggregators is the business model that most online publishing is based on, which consists of collecting as many pageviews and unique visitors as possible. Its critics complain that this is what drives the HuffPo to do such clumsy aggregation — but it’s the same yardstick they use when they complain about how little traffic the aggregated piece sends them.

In the end, the online media business is about attention: how to get it, how to keep it, and how to maintain it over time — and it isn’t a sprint, but a marathon. Worrying about every place that posts a summary of your content without permission is a mug’s game. If a poorly aggregated, hastily rewritten version of your content can compete with what you do, and offer more (or even as much) value to the reader over the long term, then you have a lot bigger problems than just The Huffington Post.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users World Economic Forum and jphilipg