Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Save the soul of online news: Don't let Huff Post kill it

News aggregation and curation is important, it may be the future of online news, but the social news model of and others is much better than the wrongly championed Huffington Post.

Online news experts such as Jeff Jarvis, Felix Salmon, Robert Niles et all say aggregation is inevitable. They seem to suggest that online conversation centered on issues  is the only thing that matters in online news.

And since The New York Times was late to the online news innovation stakes, these experts will let you believe that the NYT should just bow to the might of Huffington Post.

Acting as gatekeepers for what is good and what is bad with online journalism, these experts probably did not take kindly to the NYT editor Bill Keller's (who, like most good editors, is a behind-the-scenes kind of guy) outburst against Arianna Huffington, who is more in the news than the news itself. These guys look to be in awe of the promotional abilities of Arianna Huffington.

Should the NYT should just roll over and die? Who will fund good journalism? After all, if conversation is all that matters, then there is no need for reporters to go out out daily and covering their beats. Just sit at your computer and say 'whadup?'. You are a newsperson now.

Let us examine The Huff Post Kind of aggregation. Here, dedicated editors choose news stories, using a good chunk of other's work in block quotes, so that the user doesn't have to go to the original source. The editors follow it up with slideshows, tweets about the article, shallow articles based on Google trends, and the latest celebrity scandal. This is not aggregation. This is not online news. This is just blogging on a huge scale.

If it is 'aggregation + conversation' that is the holy grail for online news, then we already have shining examples in form of Social news/Discussion sites such as Reddit (and its excellent sub-reddits), Hacker News, Fark, and Slashdot. During its hey days, the conversation on Digg was also good.

In 2008, Jeff Jarvis write about the need for more explainers online. Jeff said, 'The building block of journalism is no longer the article'.

What Jeff meant was that an article isn't enough to cover an issue. You must aggregate and curate relevant links about the issue on a regular basis, using other online sources, some thing like Wikipedia, eventually creating a hugely resourceful page onb that issue.

How many such pages has Huffington Post created? I tried searching Huff Post. Used the Search box. Put in words like "explainer", "special", and "spotlight". All I got was a garbage collection of tweets and links to links.

Let us come back to aggregation and conversation.  You do not hear publishers complaining about Reddit linking to their stories do you? The Huffington Post has murdered the great idea of social news, with all its razzmatazz of celebrity name throwing, in your face excerpting, and clever partnering (Facebook etc.). It used the simmering right-vs.-liberal divisions in America, beating established players like Daily Kos, and eventually getting bigger traffic (and market valuation) than The New York Times.

Apologists for the Huff Post, like Paul Carr of Techcrunch (a Huff Post/AOL property now) say that despite what many may think, thousands of writers try to submit articles for free, daily. Yes, if these writers were any good, they would have their own blog and a following of their own. You will not see Tyler Cowen (Marginal revolution) or Jason Kottke needing to submit to Huff Post to raise their profiles. The kind of writers who try to submit stories to Huff Post earlier tried to submit their articles to or any other social news sites available. Huff Post is kind of like MillionDollarPixels for bad writers or special interest groups, or PR people. Quality aggregation and conversation this isn't.

What all these experts are hoping for is that enough momentum is generated for Huff Post so that it graduates from the mess of pseudo-curation/aggregation and becomes a hub where local news people go to submit and share their stories, without ever having to pay anyone. The circle of online news hell goes on and on.

Meanwhile, the New York Times can look into buying Reddit from Condenast and let it run free.

Notes: A quick look at the pro-huff-post experts:
1. Jeff Jarvis - He is so pro he reposted his defense of Huff Post on Huff Post itself.
2. Felix Salmon - On the rare occasion that NYT links to Huff Post without crediting the Huff Post writer in name, Felix chooses to use that example to run down the Times.
3. Robert Niles -  He writes correctly that aggregation is important, but does not offer any concrete.
4. Paul Carr - Writes for Techcrunch. a Huff Post/AOL property. Paul is designated funny writer at Techcrunch, whose primary job profile is to prove that Techcrunch does quality writing too.

Also Read:
Huffington Post - Google's favorite News Content farm
Three Reasons why Web Journalism is a joke
How NYT is the main source for all major aggregators and social news sites

Update #1: Why I wrote this
I am a blogger. I link to articles. I put excerpts in blockquotes. I am not a big fan of traditional news organizations, who may be thick in the head, when it comes to online news.

But, in case of NYT vs. Huff Post, I see a certain bandwagoning happen, which is somewhat dishonest. I respect and admire NYT's content, and this is something worth standing up for.

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