I couldn’t resist aggregating Erik Wemple’s post on aggregation and the Washington Post.
Erik, who blogs about media for the Post, contacted me yesterday asking for a reaction to this statement by the Post’s soon-to-be new owner, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon:
The Post is famous for its investigative journalism. It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories. And then a bunch of Web sites summarize that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? If you can’t, it’s difficult to put the right resources behind it. . . . Even behind a paywall [digital subscription], Web sites can summarize your work and make it available for free. From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, ‘Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free’ from another site?”
It was a bizarre statement, sounding as though it came from a longtime newspaper publisher, shaking his fist at those damned Internet disruptors on his lawn, rather than coming from one of those disruptors, supposedly offering hope by bringing new ideas and a new perspective to one of the most treasured newspapers.
Erik, a colleague from our TBD days, noted correctly, “While The Washington Post does indeed heave a tremendous amount of original and industrious content every single day, it’s not exactly allergic to aggregation.” On the recent National Security Agency stories reported first by the Guardian, Erik noted, the Post “scrambled to ‘match’ — a newsperson’s old-fashioned synonym for aggregating — and, hopefully, advance the reporting.”
In a TBD trifecta, Erik also quoted our then- and my now-boss Jim Brady. It’s a good piece and you should read it. Erik would like to see the data backing up Arianna Huffington’s assertion that most Huffington Post visitors click through to original stories aggregated by HuffPo. I don’t believe that claim for a minute, but I’m also certain the number is substantial and provides a notable traffic boost to the original source. When Erik and I were at TBD, we had a specific strategy of alerting HuffPo and other aggregators to stories we thought would interest them, because the traffic was so significant. I will update this post with the meager number of clicks to Erik’s blog from this post. So go ahead and click and read Erik’s piece. I’ll wait. Update: At almost 9 p.m., 400 people have clicked this blog post and 49 of them clicked links to the post and two more clicked on Paul Farhi’s story.
Glad you came back. As I’ve noted before, an aggregator should add value.
I’ll do that here by including my full response to Erik. He used three quotes from me (more of my response than reporters usually use from an interview or a similar email exchange). Here’s what I wrote back to Erik (correcting a typo that I noted in a follow-up response):
It’s a bogus issue and not that new of an issue. Most newspapers have belonged to the Associated Press for decades, and they paid (and still pay) the AP tons of money for its content, but part of that deal is that the AP makes our stories available to lots of other content sources. And radio and TV stations have always summarized newspapers’ content and made it available for free. Aggregators who do that online at least link to us and send us traffic. The fair use exceptions to copyright law are nothing new. If you produce good content, people are going to repeat it.
By the way, as someone who was a reporter and editor at several Midwestern newspapers, I can attest that the Washington Post frequently summarized our work in its national reporting, often without credit. This is not a new phenomenon in journalism, and it’s not at all the reason the Washington Post and other newspapers have struggled financially.
I think Bezos is telling his Post audience what they want to hear. I’m pretty confident his solutions to the Post’s business challenges will be more innovative than whining about how the world is.
In a brief follow-up exchange, I added:
It does sound old-school.
I do think Bezos will be more innovative. On further reflection, this is the key question in Bezos’ quote:
One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment?
If he doesn’t have a good answer to that, his $250 million investment in the Post was all about ego or generosity to Don Graham. Whichever it was, Bezos, reported to be worth $25 billion, could easily afford it.
The quote Erik asked me about came from an interview with Bezos by the Post’s Paul Farhi. This quote from the Farhi interview was more encouraging:
“We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient,” he said. “If you replace ‘customer’ with ‘reader,’ that approach, that point of view, can be successful at The Post, too.”
Bezos told Farhi he will offer this point of view in discussions with Post leaders about how the organization should evolve and he will provide plenty of “runway” for experimentation to succeed.
This quote was troubling:
“If we figure out a new golden era at The Post . . . that will be due to the ingenuity and inventiveness and experimentation of the team at The Post,” he said. “I’ll be there with advice from a distance. If we solve that problem, I won’t deserve credit for it.”
The team at the Post has been inventing and experimenting. And falling behind. The Post and the whole newspaper industry need to become far more inventive than they have been. If the Post is going to succeed in the world of aggregation Bezos described, he’s going to need to be a stronger leader than he indicated to Farhi. And he’s not going to do that by complaining about the state of the digital marketplace. He’s going to have to show how to thrive in that marketplace.
Update: Mathew Ingram has written a thoughtful take on Bezos’ comments to Farhi and in a visit to the Post newsroom. I also recommend reading the thoughtful comments below.
I should stress that I really meant the first part of this statement to Erik:
I’m pretty confident his solutions to the Post’s business challenges will be more innovative than whining about how the world is.
I’ll be shocked if Bezos doesn’t try more innovative approaches for the Post than anything he has indicated so far.