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The Story So Far – Aggregation: ‘Shameless’ – and Essential

January 7, 2011

In just six years, The Huffington Post has gone from an idea into a real competitor— at least in the size of its audience—with the New York Times. It has mastered and fine-tuned not just aggregation, but also social media, comments from readers, and most of all, a sense of what its public wants. In the process, Huffington has helped media companies, new and old, understand the appeal of aggregation: its ability to give prominence to otherwise unheard voices and to bring together and serve intensely engaged audiences, as well its minimal costs compared to what’s incurred in the traditionally laborious task of gathering original content.

Despite criticism from traditional publishers, an analysis of 199 leading news sites by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism found that most of them published some combination of original reporting, aggregation and commentary and that the mix differed considerably depending on the management strategy, the site’s history and its budget.

Pew categorized 47 of the sites it surveyed as aggregators/commentators and 152 as primarily producers of original content. In the aggregator/commentary group, 80% of the sites were online-only; of the original-content group, 80% were connected to traditional media.

What is surprising is that consumers use these different kinds of sites quite similarly.

Huffington often says that aggregation benefits original-content producers as much as it does the aggregators. Even the largest news suppliers, such as Time.com or CNN.com, appreciate what top billing on You-Tube or Google News can do to increase traffic and advertising revenue. When sites promote each others’ content, they create more engaged audiences through additional page views and commentary.

News organisations have always blended material from a variety of sources by combining editorial content from staff, news services, and freelancers; adding advertising; and then distributing the package to consumers. In the digital world, news aggregation is not so different.

There are two basic models for aggregation. The cheapest way to aggregate news is through code and algorithms, with little or no human intervention – think Google News or Yahoo News. On the other end of the spectrum, publications like Huffington Post starts with algorithmic selections but puts them into the hands of human editors who set priorities for sections and then condense, rewrite or bring several organisations’ versions of the same story together.

Newser.com, the aggregation site co-founded by Michael Wolff, represents much of what legacy media companies hate about the Web: It has little original reporting, and its stories are short rewrites of information from several other sites, with a design that emphasises graphics. Newser says out loud in its slogan: “Read Less, Know More.”

Its total operating costs are about $1.5 million per year, for a site with 2.5 million unique visitors a month and they expect to break even in 2011.

New York Magazine’s site, nymag.com does original reporting but since 2007 it has also had a strategy of growing through four blogs that use third-party content combined with original reporting: Grub Street (on food), Daily Intel (political and media news), Vulture (culture) and The Cut (fashion). The evolution of nymag.com’s cultural news site, Vulture, demonstrates how powerful aggregation strategies can be. In February 2010, Vulture was getting 700 to 800 unique visitors daily, it now has 2.5 million unique users.

Because aggregation is so much cheaper than original content, it has an automatic economic advantage, but the attractiveness of aggregation brings more and more competitors into the field. Merely being an aggregator is hardly a guarantee of economic security. The economic benefits of aggregation and being aggregated are significant, even if they differ widely from one site to the next.

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