Most of my nonfiction reading happens on Instapaper these days. As I’m going about my business on the internet, I’m constantly saving articles to my “read it later” app of choice. Pretty much anything longer than a few hundred words gets bookmarked to be read that evening in a clean format, stripped of page breaks and ads. Often, I click through to the publisher’s site for less than a minute, just long enough to click the “bookmark” button and for a popup to announce that the article has been saved.
As a reader, I love the convenience and ad-free experience. As a former editor who once paid close attention to metrics like “time on site” and ad impressions served, I feel a bit guilty that my solution to information overload seems to disadvantage publishers. In my own small way, I’m an aggregator: sifting through the vast amount of digital media, selecting pieces from a smattering out outlets, and consuming them in such a way that any interaction with the original publisher is purely optional.
Individual reader-curators like me are not the first thing to leap to mind when you see the word “aggregator.” But the definition has never been blurrier. Earlier this month, Spanish legislators announced they’re considering a law that would regulate aggregators—Google News in particular—by forcing them to compensate original publishers when they re-publish headlines and excerpts. The problem is that almost every news outlet and individual news consumer has become an aggregator of sorts, filtering and linking to the things we’ve found most compelling, often republishing excerpts on our own blogs or sites. Even The New York Times has gotten into the aggregation game with its new NYT Now app, which doesn’t just link to its own stories, but to the best of the Web.
Now that we’re all filtering links for others, how can we avoid gutting the outlets that are producing the work we love? There are three simple cardinal rules of being an ethical aggregator:
1. Identify the source prominently.
Credit both the writer and the outlet that paid him or her to do this great work.
2. Always link directly to the publisher.
Not to your own blog where you’ve published an excerpt and then to the publisher. Link directly.
3. Excerpt a paragraph at most.
If you’re a good aggregator, you want people to click through to the source to get the whole story. Don’t copy-paste the best eight paragraphs out of a 12-paragraph piece and call it aggregating. That’s a reprint.
Responsible aggregation—which is to say, not deliberately confusing readers about the source of the material they’re reading, or making them follow a maze of links to get to the original—is good for aggregators, too. “The goal is for readers to come to the site and be able to quickly scan the homepage, find something interesting, and start reading it immediately with minimal interference from us. That’s the only way they’ll come back,” says Max Linsky, co-founder of Longform, which pulls together great nonfiction links from around the Web—with the help and encouragement of many of the original publishers.
While it’s valuable to hold aggregators accountable for giving credit and links where they’re due, there’s also a flip side to this equation. What about being an ethical reader? Another great thing about my reliance on Instapaper is that it allows me to track which sources I end up reading a lot—a surprisingly difficult task, given that so much of my reading material is gathered from disparate social-media sources and I have no news sites permanently bookmarked. My Instapaper archive is essentially a list of the publications I read regularly, which can then be compared to the list of publications I pay for. When I did a casual analysis of my archive, I noticed that I read The New Yorker’s digital-only offerings as much or more frequently than I read the print magazine. I feel great about that because as a print subscriber, I also subsidize digital. But I also noticed I read The Atlantic, both print and Web, with regularity. And I don’t subscribe. I know journalism isn’t free, so ethically speaking, I should probably pony up.
In Astra Taylor’s new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, she compares our digital media consumption to eating fast food. We don’t think much about where we click, how that information made its way to us, or who’s (not) getting paid a living wage to produce it. It’s fair to single out problem aggregators. But really we could all be paying more attention to which publishers we tend to read frequently, then ask ourselves when we last paid the people who are creating what we consume.