To Be or Not to Be
August 2009

by Ron Steinman

Yes, I realize news aggregators offer a real service but I also see them, through no fault of their own, as a real danger. So also does The Associated Press, but for different reasons. It wants to stop aggregators from using its news stories without a proper license, as some Web sites do already. Access the attached URL for the story, as it appeared July 24, 2009, in The New York Times. A.P. Cracks Down on Unpaid Use of Articles on Web.

I understand and sympathize with the AP. I wish them well. No one should get someone else's hard-earned content for free, a continuing problem for all journalism, especially print. However, my take is somewhat different. It is less about the aggregators and more about those who use them. In a way, the two ideas overlap.

By all estimates, there are now more than a billion personal computers in the world. More than three billion people have cell phones. Three billion people! This is staggering. Think of all the advertising space on those small screens waiting to annoy most everyone. Or, maybe, not. Maybe it fills the emptiness of a person's day. This means that online viewing is rising very fast. When and where it will stop, if ever, no one knows. Add to all these numbers a serious estimate that I believe is too low, that in the next six years we are likely to see another two billion people with mobile computers, meaning the next generations of cell phones, PDAs, mini computers and the like. Despite these numbers, we should remember computer saturation is not nearly complete. Many in the world still do not have computers nor do they have access to a computer. Many who do, do not have broadband or DSL. Broadband probably covers no more than 30 percent of those who own computers. Many who do own a computer do not spend significant portions of their day online. I assume they have lives that exist beyond the small screen. At least I hope they do, though these days one never knows. All these computers and computer-like devices require information or else their purpose will fail.

This is where the aggregators come in with their purported purpose to make life easier for anyone seeking knowledge or at least a sense of their world. With this in mind, here is a snap quiz. No, not written; answers will be by a show of hands.

How many read a newspaper? Not many, I suppose. How many read a news Web site? Note that I did not ask how many get their news from a Web site. They are different questions. Too many people these days think that when they see a headline they are getting the news. Nothing is further from the truth. The growth and belief in aggregators is fascinating and dangerous. Do aggregators really work or are they a lazy person's way of getting only a taste of the news? Do people actually read what they see on their screen or do most of these headlines simply pile up and then fade away by the end of the day or whatever news cycle you are on? Chances are that if a person aggregates material from too many Web sites, he or she will never get to read anything. Who has the time?

Using an aggregator as a collection agency is having someone else do the work of assimilating, finding and presenting information which, with a bit of effort, a person could find for him or herself. Aggregators are not the problem; it is the people who swear by them that are. People delude themselves by thinking the aggregator serves as an easy way to organize and absorb news content. Using an aggregator for your only source of news indicates that you cannot think for yourself. True, some sites allow visitors or members to make their own front page with stories they believe are important for them. It could be sports, movie gossip, Michael Jackson, even Washington politics. Sometimes an individual's choices are weak, misinformed and skewed, more often than not based on simplicity and emotion, rather than complexity.

An aggregator enables you to get as many headlines as you want from as many different sources. That does not mean you will understand what is going on in the world. Editors in print and on the Web create headlines to grab the reader's attention. However, one must read beyond the headline to understand what the story means.

Aggregators often link to other sites without prior consent. Though the aggregator gives credit, it presents material created by other sources as if the information is its own. The reader gets free information. The organization that collected the news suffers because it receives nothing in return for its product. The aggregator gets a free ride on information collected and parsed by another person or organization. I do not believe the average person subscribing to an aggregator knows the difference. News aggregator Web sites exist to save people the time and effort they might expend if they surfed the Web to get the information without help. If something new pops up, the aggregator collects it and then disperses it to its clients. If you understand the Internet and how it works, none of this is new. We call these applications RSS readers, feed readers, feed aggregators, newsreaders or search aggregators. The problem is that none of them create anything.

As smaller and smaller screens dominate our lives, meaning PDAs, cell phones and mini-computers, who will supply original content? If the majors in old media continue to fail and decline in output and influence, what will take the place of the hunters and gatherers of news? Surely not what some are calling "hyper local news sites." Web sites devoted to local news, often well-meaning and with purpose, they are struggling as much as the big boys to get advertising and stay alive. Citizen journalism, a serious attempt to complement traditional news, does not work unless there is a crisis such as the Iranian election. News cannot live on the work of amateurs or a lucky photo of an event snapped with a cell phone.

Of course, and this is not a revelation, it comes down to the most serious challenge the news business faces today. Simply, how does any news operation survive? Everywhere you turn, serious thinkers are giving this serious thought, seemingly all the time. There is no easy answer. However, if the means of collecting and then disseminating the news fails, the aggregators will also fail. They will have either a limited product to put in its feeds, or, worse, no product at all.

I do not use aggregators for anything except as a marker to point the way to a more extensive look at the news. I trust only myself to ferret out a story, even if it takes me longer to do so than it takes for me to read a headline sent from an aggregator. As long as I can breathe, I would rather do the work myself. I trust myself more than a powerful piece of software or even a set of smart people sitting in the dark in front of powerful computers, pulling information and sending it to me electronically. Yes, I know, it is all about time. But time is really all we have and how we delegate those seconds and minutes will be the key to our survival. I really mean that. Except, the young rarely think of survival. They think they have too much living to do.

Making things worse and only adding to the many nails already in the coffin of old media, we have the vaunted London Times on its Web site, Timeonline, making hay with a 15-year-old intern at Morgan Stanley. His name is Matthew Robson. He is making pronouncements about all media that has many fawning over what he has been saying. This is what he says about newspapers: "No teenager that I know of regularly reads a newspaper, as most do not have the time and cannot be bothered to read pages and pages of text while they could watch the news sumarised (British spelling) on the Internet or on TV." That should about do it for our current generation. If those youngsters already living in a digital world of bits and pieces find the text is too much for them to consider, we have to feel sorry for the world they will inherit. Aggregators will become more powerful and more the norm. In fact, all information will come via an aggregator. Hope for the future of journalism is out the window. And there will be nobody around to say, "I told you so."

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's

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