Aggregation aggravation

Politico's Maggie Haberman has a pretty liberal view of how much to quote when aggregating. Should she be more conservative?

How much aggregation is too much? It’s been years since aggregator extraordinaire Huffington Post entered the online media fray, and we still haven’t come up with a standard answer. Aggregation doesn’t have its own AP Stylebook, but I do think that reputable publications have gotten beyond the point where blog posts consist of a sentence or two of original content and then an overly generous excerpt of someone else’s work. Either point a reader toward someone else’s article with a few sentences saying as much and then a few sentences of the original source to pique the reader’s interest, or add value to the piece being quoted—analysis or a comparison to other sources—rather than simply reprinting someone else’s words and reaping clicks.

Which is why I thought it was kind of strange to see Politico’s Maggie Haberman posting large chunks of other people’s work surrounded by a few sentences of her own on the Burns & Haberman blog she co-writes with Alexander Burns and Emily Schultheis. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noticed it first, pointing out that one of Haberman’s September 10 entries excerpted a good 60 percent of a Wall Street Journal editorial, the bulk of which was behind a paywall. Wemple also pointed out that Haberman hadn’t linked to the original source, though Haberman told him this was a mistake and the link was quickly added. Wemple pointed out—correctly—that Haberman usually includes links to the sources she excerpts, so I have no problem believing that the lack of a link was a mistake that has now been fixed.

But Wemple made another point in his article that Politico hasn’t addressed: Did Haberman excerpt too much of the WSJ editorial without adding enough original content or analysis of her own to justify reprinting such a generous amount of content? She linked back to the original source, but why would readers bother to click that link when most of the article was already in front of them?

Wemple is quick to point out—and I agree—that he thinks Haberman is a good journalist, that both she and Politico do a great job of staying on top of the news, and that Politico deserves its status as the Internet’s “go-to spot” for political coverage. But when it comes to quoting source material, “you want to be very selective and restrained in how much you take,” Wemple told CJR. Blog posts should really use excerpts as a “teaser,” Wemple says, not give most of the article away. So I understand why Ashley Huston, the WSJ spokeswoman Wemple contacted about Haberman’s post, did not appreciate the length of Haberman’s quote, telling him that “such a liberal excerpt with no original Politico content or the courtesy of a link back, is not aggregation; it is exceedingly bad form.”

Yet Haberman’s colleague, Jonathan Martin, seems to disagree with the Wall Street Journal’s take. On Twitter Tuesday night, he called the spokeswoman’s opinion “weak” and said that the WSJ should “say thanks for the traffic.” He tweeted to Wemple that he wouldn’t have a problem (in fact, he would “luv”) if a large portion of one of his articles appeared on another site as long as it was properly credited. “It was an unsigned edit, not War and Peace,” Martin tweeted.

Then Ben Smith, former Politico writer and now Buzzfeed editor-in-chief, weighed in to say that the WSJ should take down its paywall to “stay relevent.” I jumped in, and it all ended with this:

… which should give you a pretty good idea of how good I am at expressing my opinion in 140 characters. :(

If this was a one-off post from Haberman, I wouldn’t have much more to say on the matter. But it isn’t. I looked back at her (impressively prolific) output in the last two weeks and found several incidences where she quoted a good portion of the original source (she always credited the outlet, if not the author, prominently in the post) while adding merely a few sentences around the blockquote with little to none of the analysis that would justify such a generous excerpt.

For example, this post from Tuesday quotes just over 40 percent of the source article. This post, from September 10, quotes 66 percent of a Washington Post editorial. Another post from September 5 quotes just under half of a James Rainey column in the Los Angeles Times.

Haberman’s co-bloggers don’t quote such long passages with such little content of their own—at least not the posts I was skimming. And I would like to point out that those selected posts are far from the full extent of Haberman’s output; most of her posts either excerpt small sections or are entirely original material. We’re talking about a few bad apples in a very large barrel. But that doesn’t make it okay.

I emailed Haberman to ask her about her aggregation practices, pointing out entries that I thought excerpted too much of the source material. I heard back from Danielle Jones, Politico’s managing editor, who said:

Maggie is a scrupulously fair reporter who attempts to link back whenever she excerpts from other news sources.

We and other news organizations are constantly evaluating how and when we aggregate and our goal is to treat other news outlets the way we want to be treated.

Fittingly, Jones said Politico had “nothing to add” in regards to Jonathan Martin’s tweets.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , ,