Are aggregation and curation journalism? Wrong question

The battle between traditional media and the blogosphere over aggregation (or “curation,” if you prefer) continues to rage. In the latest skirmish, Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill got thrown under the bus by many for a recent blog post in which she summarized a New York Times piece about data-mining practices and privacy. According to her critics, Hill “stole” the story from the NYT, along with a lot of web traffic that rightfully belonged to the newspaper. Some argue that this doesn’t deserve to be called “journalism” — but in many ways the eternal debate over what qualifies as journalism is a red herring. The reality is that aggregation and curation are part of the new media ecosystem, and they can add a lot of value whether we like them or not.

As more and more competitors for traditional media outlets emerge — whether they are corporations like The Huffington Post (s aol) or teenagers in war-torn countries trying to do journalism on the fly, like the 14-year-old profiled in a recent New York Times story — there seems to be a growing obsession with defining what journalism is, and who deserves (or doesn’t deserve) to be called a journalist. Is the man who live-blogged the Osama bin Laden assassination a journalist? Is National Public Radio’s Andy Carvin, who has been using Twitter as a one-man newswire during the Arab Spring, a journalist?

Some mainstream journalists would answer no to both of those questions, but by doing so they miss the larger point, which is that in both cases, information is provided that increases our knowledge about an important topic. Isn’t that a pretty good definition of journalism, not whether someone made a phone call or has a specific degree, or whether they travelled to a war zone or not? In some cases, as journalist Rob Pegoraro noted, smart curation may actually serve that goal better than so-called “original reporting.”

The question that matters is whether it serves the reader

During a debate on Twitter about Hill’s post and whether it qualifies as journalism or not, Jonathan Stray — the interactive technology editor for the Associated Press — raised a good point when he asked: “Do we judge capital-J Journalism by how much original reporting it has, or how well the product serves the users?” If raising awareness about privacy infractions and creepy data-mining practices is valuable, then Hill’s post served that purpose, because it probably got a lot of readers who might never have seen the NYT piece, or never have made it all the way through the 6,700-word original.

So one perspective is that Hill “stole” the NYT story in a shameless attempt to get pageviews from someone else’s work — and the other is that she highlighted an important issue within that story in a very readable way, and also directed a lot of traffic to the original that might never have gone there without her post. The Huffington Post gets criticized for doing something similar, which mainstream outlets criticize as theft, but in some cases (although not all, I will admit) the HuffPo version is actually better than the original, in the sense that it is more useful or adds more information.

A former colleague, Ottawa Citizen online editor Melanie Coulson, argued in a post that what Hill did isn’t journalism, it’s just aggregation. And in an interview with media blogger Jim Romenesko, the author of the NYT piece that Hill excerpted said that he was perfectly fine with Hill doing what she did if it brought more attention to the issue and to his piece, but noted that “every hour spent summarizing is an hour not spent reporting.”

This is a false dichotomy in many ways. Having followed Hill’s blog at Forbes, I know that she often does original reporting, as well as the kind of post she did with the NYT piece. Both arguably have value for readers, which theoretically should be the primary goal. Many journalists like to focus on sexier pursuits like foreign reporting and investigative stories, but the reality is that much of what we call journalism is very different. In the end, it has to serve the reader — either by informing them or entertaining them, or some combination of the two. That’s not something to be ashamed of.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Yan Arief Purwanto and jphilipg.