In 2011, Bill Keller accused Arianna Huffington’s namesake site of doing no less than stealing content, arguing, “There’s often a thin line between aggregation and theft.”
The threat from aggregation prompted lots of whining from the troubled newspaper industry around then, as aggregators were blamed for taking traffic away from mainstream outlets and repurposing content without enough attribution.
This war has largely been forgotten—perhaps peace has been made with promises of better link-backs, shorter excerpts, or more closely following legal guidance. Or perhaps news organizations simply gave up, and even made aggregation a standard feature.
Either way, there’s a new war looming on the horizon—call it the News Aggregation War 2.0: the rise of third-party mobile aggregators that are keyed to news personalization. This ability to curate a personalized news feed, in an age when users are used to shaping what they see—ads aside—on sites like Twitter and Facebook, is likely the next wave of news consumption. Outlets like The New York Times feature a paltry sidebar with personalized recommendations, and readers can get automated emails on topics of interest.
But in the fight to keep eyeballs, these efforts are unlikely to compete with algorithms that compile personalized news from across the Web. After a recent trip to San Francisco to study venture-backed for-profits as part of a larger project for the Reynolds Journalism Institute, I found clear evidence that these new aggregators may well be way ahead of traditional news organizations when it comes to building personalized systems for recommending news.
Between the new apps’ content co-option and the advances in personalization, there may be no need to go to a traditional news organization when the apps offer a better experience, generally without regard to the fact that they are drawing traffic away from news organizations. If such news organizations know what’s good for them, they will develop their own personal-recommendation aggregation apps, bolstering their back-end firepower to help compete with well-funded tech startups.
Most of these aggregators haven’t considered what will happen if their sources stop being able to serve them with content, meaning that they haven’t thought about how they are cannibalizing from traditional news sites without contributing to their bottom lines.
In fact, in some cases, these tech innovators believe that there’s little to be concerned about with the profit model of traditional news, and are unconcerned with the consequences of aggregation. This indifference is the same kind of disregard for original content creation that traditional journalists feared during the first aggregation wars.
Take for example Prismatic, a social news app that underscores some of the advantages—and the thinking—of the current breed of new-style news aggregators. The company received $15 million in Series A funding, and has the interest of Accel’s Jim Breyer and Yuri Milner, an investor in Facebook and Spotify, among other tech successes.
The app is geared toward surfacing information based what users share socially, their preferences, the quality of specific sources of journalism, and content geared to spur them outside the filter bubble.
The heart of Prismatic’s mobile app is its technologists. The original core of the team came out of the top schools—Berkeley, MIT, Stanford—and are experts in machine learning. Trevor Gilbert, who runs “community” for Prismatic, boasted to me that the team was so good that even in the first year and a half of the company, when the algorithm was “raw and undeveloped [it] was still blowing away things that had been developed by gigantic companies.”
And Prismatic’s app steals freely from traditional news sites. There is no attribution via links, and there is no obvious mechanism crediting the original news site. Instead, Prismatic aggregates the content from the likes of the BBC, the AP, and even Psychology Today, featuring verbatim snippets grabbed from the stories with no obvious link-backs to the original sites. On the excerpt, there’s not even a byline for the story.
Prismatic will lead you to related original content, but all of this is hosted through the app, meaning that its app is garnering the benefits of being able to claim engagement and traffic performance.
When asked about agreements with news organizations to use this content, Gilbert, a journalist, explained to me that “no one is angry” about Prismatic, and assured me that core content providers were excited. But I’m doubtful that content providers will continue to be excited when they see just how little they are receiving any kind of credit for their work.
In fact, the app doesn’t even see itself in the business of news, but as “personalized software,” and focuses on continually refining the aggregation and ability to cater to user preferences. Recommendation engines on news sites or apps may simply be unable to compete with this kind of innovation and lose out on the content stealing.