Third party apps are winning the traffic battle

News outlets need to make tools pushing personalized content to keep readers on their sites

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.

Another startup I visited, News360, is a competitor of Prismatic. It has its own proprietary algorithm for generating reading suggestions: It tracks every single detail of what you choose on the site, from the topics you read to whether you “like” the content to choose more like it, how this content relates to your social media networks and what they are reading and recommending, and then offers an assortment of new content based on these selections. News360’s twist is that it allows users to switch between different sources for the same story. You might think of it as a socially enabled Pandora for news.

This team doesn’t have any journalists on it—just technical staff—and has been working on perfecting this algorithm for two years. The name for what they are doing, according to CEO Roman Karachinsky, is an “anticipatory search engine.” Karachinsky didn’t seem concerned about the effects of taking content from news sites. When I asked Karachinsky about whether he worried about his content stream drying up, he told me that he didn’t think there was any eminent sign of news organizations going by the wayside, and that any sort of real crisis was over, as traditional news outlets had mostly stabilized and were in the process of recovery.

I also visited Circa, one of the earlier entrants on the news startup scene. Circa isn’t an aggregator—it’s not excerpting content and hosting it on the app. But its source for its curation is all original news gathered by other news organizations. Its staff finds the aggregation/curation distinction important, because the company has an editorial team producing original content.

But with little original reporting—if any—Circa relies on news gathered elsewhere to put together what chief content officer David Cohn calls “atomic units” of news, or bite-sized, digestible pieces of content rather than articles.

These atomic units are key to the personalization system it has created for its users. By electing to “follow” a story, Circa’s app starts to know you—instead of having to reread the same four or five paragraphs in a story about Ebola, Circa saves you the trouble, knowing you’ve already read this information and instead serves you with the newest information available.

The personalized, customizable way of being able to follow stories is promising—and dangerous to traditional news outlets. This chunkifying of news that follows the user goes far outside the way any traditional news organization is thinking—precisely what Co-founder Ben Huh, of I Can Haz Cheeseburger fam, hoped. I’ve actually been using it as a shortcut for going to news sites on busy days, and feel sufficiently informed on a breaking story when I do.

What we’re seeing then, should be a call to action to traditional news organizations. Personalized recommendation systems are becoming a required entry point for distributing news to people getting more and more content through social curation. And if the flow of money continues into news startups building platforms that are specifically focused on aggregating content to serve personalized news feeds, the competing algorithms may keep improving.

For news organizations to compete against the forces of the new personalized aggregation world, they are going to have to come out with products that have the same kind of technological sophistication. And I’d augur to say they have a lot of catching up to do to stay in the game.

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Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs and a Tow Fellow at Columbia. She is the author of Making News at The New York Times.