Aggregation arose as a hot topic this week. Bleacher Report’s Matt Hayes published his interview with UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen. Rosen, known for being smart, if not too smart, offered some noteworthy quotations. Some looked even more noteworthy left alone in a headline. Outlets were criticized for aggregation and framing that aggregation into “clickbait.” This debate left me surprised.
First, this is Bleacher Report. Bleacher Report was the outlet that built itself on enlisting an army of unpaid aggregators and gaming search engines with “clickbait” headlines that muscled out news outlets. One of their designated real journalists being purportedly victimized by aggregation was incredible irony.
Moreover, I had assumed that this argument had been rendered moot. Journalism and aggregation have merged. Much of journalism is aggregation. It has become nearly impossible to distinguish between the two. As for “clickbait,” there’s a reason why headlines at every outlet look exactly like the headlines journalists once savaged Bleacher Report for writing.
Most of media activity is reacting to reports from elsewhere, a form of aggregation. Whether it’s a blog, a rival outlet, a television network, or a radio show, the goal is finding a way to advance the discussion which other reporting raised. FS1 pivoted entirely to video reactions. That’s most of what ESPN does on the television front, even on SportsCenter.
The great growth models of the past decade in the sports media, besides having a substantial subsidy from television, have been aggregation-based. Giving the many people who want to write a forum to do so, not compensating them well, if at all, and selling ads on the volume they produce is a productive business model.
Straight aggregation is in decline because it has become so ubiquitous it is subject to the law of diminishing returns. You can’t get attention just riffing on the news anymore when 30 other sites jumped on that same quote which everyone just saw scroll across Twitter. It’s easier to create your own controversy. Hence, the rise of contrarian opining, often about hypotheticals.
Aggregation is far from just a sports media phenomenon. It also forms most of the hard news coverage. CNN does some excellent reporting. But TV news networks, for the most part, are aggregators. The thriving pundit-o-sphere and podcast culture that has arisen is aggregating. The New York Times has outstanding reporting on its front page, and articles that create a broad context before getting around to crediting The Washington Post for the initial report in graph six.
The conservative media is also steered by aggregation. The Drudge Report collects links from other outlets and crafts inflammatory headlines. Breitbart is a far-right aggregation service.
Aggregation stinks in many respects. There are few feelings more dispiriting than producing original reporting, watching it get aggregated, and then watching an influential media member retweet the aggregated link to a large social media following.
One of those more dispiriting feelings is writing an excellent 5,000-word profile, having someone else pull a quote from it, and having that quote become the story. Though, if you are publishing on the Internet, you buried the lede there. Maybe the answer is the outlet producing both the profile and the bloggy dissection of it.
Aggregation did have benefits. Blogs, in the early days, did find and promote quality local reporting readers otherwise may not have found. A small site getting linked to by Deadspin was a huge deal. Then came Twitter. Then came smartphones. Now, most people are watching the headline scroll by on Facebook. Maybe a few people click on it. Very few are clicking through again on the phone for the source. Though, there’s still some value in people discussing your work elsewhere.
The media industry at large does not benefit from aggregation. The trouble is that individual outlets, in our modern Darwinian media world, do. Even if you are paying the writers decently, aggregation is still cheaper and easier to produce than reporting. That volume produces traffic and pays for the quality content, such as Matt Hayes interviewing Josh Rosen.
Subscription models may be the great hope for traditional journalism. But one of their great challenges will be, you guessed it, avoiding aggregators undercutting their content. The rub is they may need that to influence the broader discussion.