There is a seismic shift going on that is continuing to shake the foundations of journalism. The intellectual view was well captured in an editorial by NYT executive editor Bill Keller – while the commercial reality is impossible to avoid as you can see in this chart from Business Insider on the drop in ad revenue over the last 10 years.
Keller’s piece, which is at once thought provoking and snarky, expresses annoyance at the hyper-inflated public and market valuations of aggregators like The Huffington Post, arguing that AOL’s purchase of HuffPo no more moves it into the content game than a company “announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.”
Clearly he has an issue not only with the HuffPo team making out like bandits – but more so because they are doing so, in his mind, through aggregation. Earlier in the piece, Keller describes the news aggregation business model as “taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material,” a practice he then likens to Somalian piracy. Methinks he also finds Arianna’s ability to capture a thought and repackage it in a warmer, more convincing way, very annoying.
Keller’s irritation is somewhat understandable, after all, he presides over one of the world’s great newsgathering organizations, one maintained at great expense and passion, and he’s watching the public perception of the monetary value of that content sink precipitously. But while aggregation in some form is here to stay, the quality of journalism is a pendulum that will swing back. His bemoaning of the fate of journalism is not unlike to bemoaning of the smut being circulated in England in Victorian times. Yes, there were great writers publishing in periodicals at the time (Dickens for example) but at the same time the Illustrated London News was a bestseller with stories of scandal and mayhem like Jack the Ripper.
I think Keller substantially misinterprets the value and appeal of HuffPo. Not only does HuffPo attract readers with pop culture – it also hosts a tremendous amount of valued, original opinion content authored by high-profile bloggers from politicians to religious leaders, mixed with aggregated news, yes I admit all from a decidedly left-wing perspective. I am often surprised to find out who is reading HuffPo. Not only rabid liberals in the mid West, but also academics and captains of industry. I find out because they tell me their reaction to some of the provocative pieces I have myself written for HuffPo.
More importantly, however, I think Keller misses the overall shift in content dynamics to which The NYT is also subject – the growing ability to analyze new and aggregated content and derive relationships between them making the stream both relevant and unexpected. Something we provide to our business users.