I won’t defend the Huffington Post’s appropriation of Simon Dumenco’s story this week from Ad Age or any of the smash-and-grab annexations the aggregation giant stands accused of, such as its heavy lifting of copy from the Chicago Reader, the Daily Mail, and elsewhere.
But my refusal doesn’t mean I regard the site as a “parasite,” as does former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., nor do I think of Arianna Huffington as a “counterfeiter,” as does New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, nor would I ever call content aggregators “content kleptomaniacs,” as News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch puts it, and I would never call search engines “tech tapeworms,” as Wall Street Journal Editor Robert Thomson implies.
Instead, I would remind the established media for the second time that the Huffington Post is trying to teach it a lesson: That a huge, previously ignored readership out there wants its news hot, quick, and tight. At any point in HuffPo’s astonishing rise, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or any dozen other media companies could have strangled it in its crib by producing an equally entertaining and edifying pop-news Web site that drew on the Associated Press wire, licensed photo banks, its own stories, and, yes, rewrites of other sites’ content.
Publications have been rewriting other publication’s stories since the dawn of journalism. Time magazine made a business out of blatantly rewriting daily newspaper stories for a national weekly audience in the 1920s. “We don’t pretend to be reporters at Time. We are rewrite men,” a top Time staffer once told a group of his editors. Nobody had ever done news hotter, quicker, or tighter before Time magazine. Time founders Henry R. Luce and Briton Hadden understood that some readers didn’t have time for the self-indulgent news and features newspapers specialized in, or they preferred a weekly take of the news over a daily one, or their local newspaper stunk and they wanted a more worldly view of the news. Some readers must have grown to love Time’s backward-running sentences and neologisms, famously sent up by The New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs.
It’s not just civilians demanding a quicker take on the news. Listen to Nicholas Confessore, the New York Times’superb Albany reporter. He just told the Atlantic Wire—a very energetic aggregator, by the way—thatwhat he’d “kill for is a newsletter that only sent me five or six stories a day, in total, from everywhere. The stories that were the most essential reading, that really tell you something you don’t know about politics.”
It’s not that big newspaper companies don’t know that their fat newspapers don’t appeal to everybody. For instance, the New York Times produces a 10-page daily “synopsis” of the newspaper called TimesDigest, which reaches a claimed readership of 190,000 at hotels, resorts, sports clubs, cruise ships, and elsewhere. My 2007 piece about TimesDigest praised its succinctness. The Washington Post Co. (which owns Slate) recently started a news-aggregation site, Trove, which combines human and automated aggregation.
Slate was one of the original aggregators with its “Today’s Papers” feature, which ran from June 1997 until August 2009 and digested the top newspapers (New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today) in the wee a.m. for readers curious about how the news played in different publications. Slate has since replaced “Today’s Papers” with a more universal exercise in aggregation, The Slatest. It gathers news from all corners of the Web in real time, and its writers post up to a dozen items daily. Readers love The Slatest; it’s one of the most popular parts of the site.
No discussion of aggregation is complete without a mention of the granddaddy, the Drudge Report, which provides a better moment-by-moment news view than the home pages of any daily newspaper, any cable news network, hell, any page anywhere, especially the impossible-to-navigate Huffington Post home page. Inordinately proud of their own work, newspapers and cable news networks tend to lard their home pages with copy produced in their own shops—which isn’t the same as keeping readers up on the news. It’s hard to accept that 15 years into the commercial Web era, newspaper websites still look and feel so much like newspaper websites.
Dumenco and the rest of us should continue to shame the Huffington Post whenever it exceeds fair use, but again, that’s drawing the wrong lesson from the HuffPo catechism. The site doesn’t succeed because it shoplifts—which it has been known to do—it succeeds because it’s so good at borrowing, generating original content, recruiting an army of free bloggers, building slide-show porn, and generally giving the masses what they want. I still don’t understand the appeal of the package, but say what you will, they do what they do with blinding speed.
So again, in addition to the endless (and valid!) bellyaching about the HuffPo stealing stories, I’d also like to see media companies do a better job competing against it. How can it be that somebody with scant news experience has so totally fleeced you guys?
(I cribbed this sign-off from a previously published column. Because I wrote it, I won’t file a complaint against me.) In the Oct. 13, 2008, New Yorker, Lauren Collins writes this about Arianna Huffington:
Her synthetic gifts have, at times in her career, raised questions. Her Maria Callas book prompted accusations of plagiarism from a previous biographer of Callas; the case was settled out of court. Lydia Gasman, now an emeritus art history professor at the University of Virginia, says that Huffington’s Picasso biography included themes similar to those in her unpublished four-volume Ph.D. thesis. “What she did was steal twenty years of my work,” Gasman told Maureen Orth in 1994. Gasman did not file suit. (Huffington denied both allegations.)
Synthetic gifts. I like that phrase. I think I’ll steal it. Send stolen literary goods to email@example.com and monitor my Twitter feed for originality. (Email may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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