Is Huffington Post a Content Aggregator?

The New York Times' executive editor Bill Keller and Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington battle over "content aggregation".

To answer this question, we have to first look up the commonly used definition of “aggregate”. The New Oxford American Dictionary explains to aggregate means to “form or group into a class or cluster”. Therefore, content aggregation can be defined as grouping content together. Simple enough, but does that mean that the Huffington Post is merely grouping content of other publications?

In a blog post on the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington explained her displeasure at a column the New York Time executive editor Bill Keller released today in which he expressed his displeasure at content aggregation. Though it was largely an outlet for Keller to complain about content aggregators (who can blame him? It takes hits away from his website), the column noted:

The queen of aggregation is, of course, Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come. How great is Huffington’s instinctive genius for aggregation?

This might have been a bit harsh, but I can’t help but agree with Keller. The Huffington Post collects information from many (thousands? millions? who knows) of sources. The collected content is then spoon-fed to readers. Though Huffington countered Keller was only “unsettled” by the merger between AOL and her website, she can’t deny that the success of her website can, in large part, be attributed to summarizing and re-blogging content reported by other publications (and then linking back to them, of course). But she gets defensive, explaining:

Perhaps unsettled by the fact that, when combined, The Huffington Post and AOL News have over 70 percent more unique visitors than the New York Times, and that HuffPost/AOL News’ combined page views in January 2011 were double the page views of the Times (1.5 billion vs. 750 million), New York Timesexecutive editor Bill Keller decided to unleash an exceptionally misinformed attack on HuffPost in a column released today and slated for this weekend’s NYT Magazine.

Huffington then airs some concern over whether or not she even aggregated something Keller said at a Future of Journalism panel, as he accuses her of saying what he said “verbatim”. However, both Keller and Huffington are experiencing journalistic bitchiness–something everyone who’s been in a newsroom can understand.

However, after clearing away the pettiness of Keller’s comment (“I heard one of my riffs issuing verbatim from the mouth of Ms. Huffington.” Ugh seriously? Aren’t you guys too professional for that stuff?), the rest of the column makes some good points. Keller explains the merger between AOL and Huffington Post, which his own paper noted was a means to “allow AOL to greatly expand its news gathering and original content creation”, was nothing more than a content aggregator buying another content aggregator and this could create a problem for the big merge:

Then again, some of the great aggregators, Huffington among them, seem to be experiencing a back-to-the-future epiphany. They seem to have realized that if everybody is an aggregator, nobody will be left to make real stuff to aggregate. Huffington has therefore hired a small stable of experienced journalists, including a few from here, to produce original journalism about business and politics.

However, Huffington explains:

Even before we merged with AOL, HuffPost had 148 full-time editors, writers, and reporters engaged in the serious, old-fashioned work of traditional journalism.

Okay, so all bitchy journalistic fighting aside, what does this argument mean in the grand scheme of “The Future of Journalism”?

Keller makes a good point by explaining that “what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call ‘content’.” Even now, I’m blogging about content I found online. But I don’t think re-blogging is necessarily a bad thing. As Huffington explains, her site gets hits. A crap ton of them. And The New York Times…well, it doesn’t. Though it’s sort of kind of not really stealing content, aggregation is useful for spreading the news. All old newspaper men like Keller can hope is that the aggregation will eventually save the old journalism, or at least create a new, hybrid pseudo-journalism where content aggregators and publications can live in peace.

I’d like to think this future is possible, especially when companies like Huffington Post and the New York Times need each other. Without the Huffington Post, links to the New York Times might be even worse than they are today (and, let’s be honest, people would be terribly informed). Huff Post will always need something to link to. If they don’t, they’re going to have the same problem that old publications have (hint: has something to do with paying journalists). Hear’s to a happier symbiotic relationship in the future.

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