September 4, 2013
Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos, at his other job (David McNew/Getty Images)

In an interview with The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, Jeff Bezos, The Post’s next owner, spoke of a new, reader-centric “golden era” for the newspaper. En route to that era, however, Bezos cited a challenge or two. One of them is the tendency of other Web sites to aggregate the hard labor of Washington Post journalism

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?”

For such a technology-steeped entrepreneur, Bezos’s remarks sound “old-school,” notes Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor for Digital First Media and Journal Register Co. “If you produce good content, people are going to repeat it,” writes Buttry via e-mail, noting that the practice of summarizing the work of other outlets dates back quite a while.

TV stations, for instance: What ever would they do if all of a sudden newspapers perished? They’ve been re-reporting the work of newspapers for ages! “Aggregators who do that online at least link to us and send us traffic,” argues Buttry.

Arianna Huffington would agree. When asked at a 2009 forum how many people click from the Huffington Post’s aggregated stories to the original reporting, she responded, “The majority of people go to the original story.” The Erik Wemple Blog would like to see the data to back up that assertion.

This duality between originality and aggregation, however, has become all but obsolete on the newsy Internet. 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. Think about the summer’s blockbuster stories on privacy and the National Security Agency: The Post originated some of that reporting and watched as others — most notably the Guardian — debuted other huge chunks of it. On the stories that it didn’t break, The Post scrambled to “match” — a newsperson’s old-fashioned synonym for aggregating — and, hopefully, advance the reporting. The Erik Wemple Blog is having trouble thinking of a serious news outlet that doesn’t do both of these things — original reporting as well as aggregating.

Notes Jim Brady, editor in chief of Digital First Media, “Pretty much every news organization does its fair share of aggregation these days. … Yes, there are news organizations that get haughty and mad when someone aggregates their original work. But, in just about every case, that same news organization aggregates other people’s work.” (Disclosure: Buttry and Brady were former colleagues of the Erik Wemple Blog at now-defunct TBD.com)

In a session this afternoon with Washington Post staffers, Bezos dug deeper on the Internet-sharing dynamic. To illustrate his point, he brought up the example of Business Insider, the prolifically aggregational site run by Henry Blodget — “honestly a fantastic guy,” noted Bezos. Blodget and his cohort, said Bezos, can read a piece of Washington Post enterprise journalism and, in “20 minutes,” kick out a rewrite with hot fudge and a cherry on top. For example: “They can make it more interesting by being meaner,” noted Bezos, who is an investor in Business Insider. “That’s a huge challenge,” he said.

So, what are the implications for The Post? “What you have to do is figure out how to get back to that bundle,” said the Amazon founder, who earlier in the day told a group of Posties, “We can’t have people swooping in to read one article.”

Who knows where this strategic thinking leads? Perhaps The Post will become more creative about how it presents its stories, packaging its serious investigative stuff with more frivolous fare — a notion that Bezos contemplated in his town-hall appearance. Perhaps The Post will attempt to germinate a Business Insider subsidiary in its newsroom, though the fate of blogPost, the paper’s former aggregation vehicle, suggests that might not work. And perhaps The Post will attempt to assert more web ownership of its enterprise stories, debuting them with accompanying blog posts and any little tricks to maximize hits to washingtonpost.com.

Whatever the case, strategists should look to update their approach every day, because if there’s one thing the Internet is doing, it’s changing. BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith tells the Erik Wemple Blog that original content “is the thing that goes big as the web shifts away from search and toward social.” And Advertising Age’s Simon Dumenco challenges Bezos’s formulation about the ease of aggregation: “[T]he truth is that real journalism, hard-hitting journalism, in-depth journalism about serious topics, isn’t that easy to steal, briskly sum up and make click-worthy,” notes Dumenco. “[I]t’s typically not hard-hitting stuff — it’s ephemeral, fun (or fun-ish), generally pointless pop-cultural stuff that’s getting heavily and widely aggregated.”

In other words, Miley Cyrus is a lot easier to aggregate than the black budget.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.