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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Jan. 27, 2012, 10 a.m.

David Skok: Aggregation is deep in journalism’s DNA

The aggregators of today will be the original reporters of tomorrow — it’s how disruption happens.

Below are a few quotes. Can you guess when each was written, and to what they refer?

Just what I want to read and just what I have time to read.

It enables one to keep abreast of the times without wasting a lot of time reading a whole column to obtain a single fact.

Sounds a bit like an online aggregator, doesn’t it, pulling a few salient points from much longer work? One more:

Your magazine is concise and to the point. It represents five good magazines in one.

These are, in fact, a series of subscriber comments sent to Time magazine in the weeks following its launch on March 3, 1923.

This past weekend, I was out with a friend who happens to be a former editor at Time. We were analyzing the current state of the news media in light of recent developments, including The Huffington Post’s plans to launch a 24-hour live web TV network and Buzzfeed’s aggressive push into politics. These organizations — often lambasted for aggregating other’s content while producing little of their own — are repositioning themselves with new strategies, with more room for distinctive, often original content.

My friend argued this was nothing new. Henry Luce’s Time started as a full-fledged aggregator almost 89 years ago.

A quick visit to the library confirmed his statements. Sure enough, all 29 pages of the black and white weekly — its signature red-border cover not yet developed — were packed with advertisements and aggregation. This wasn’t just rewrites of the week’s news; it was rip-and-read copy from the day’s major publications — The Atlantic Monthly, The Christian Science Monitor, and the New York World, to name a few.

Today, of course, Time, between print and online properties, reaches a global audience of 25 million; it employs celebrated journalists and editors, and it remains among America’s preeminent journalism institutions.

Using history as our guide, we shouldn’t be surprised in the recent developments at the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed — nor should we be surprised when, in the coming months and years, other sites disdained by some make similar moves. These are organizations beginning their march up the value chain — beyond LOLcats to politics, beyond aggregation to original content, beyond cheap to upmarket.

My friend is right: This is entirely predictable, and furthermore, precisely what disruption theory predicts.

Clay Christensen’s theory of disruption, first described in the seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, argues that this pattern repeats itself from industry to industry. New entrants to a field start at the low end, establish a foothold, eat away at the customer base of incumbents — and then move up the value chain. It happened with Japanese automakers in the 1980s, who started with cheap subcompacts and moved up to making Lexuses. It happened in the steel industry, where mini-mills began as a cheap, lower-quality alternative to established integrated mills, then moved their way up, pushing aside the industry’s giants. In the news business, newcomers do this by delivering a product that is faster and more personalized than that provided by the bigger, more established news organizations. They also create new market demand by engaging new audiences. (A 17-year-old may not read The New York Times, but they may stumble upon Buzzfeed to see that viral cat video.)

Herein lies Christensen’s critical point, and one that media companies should not forget. Because new-market disruptions initially attract those that aren’t traditional consumers of The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, these incumbent organizations feel little pain or threat. So they stay the course on content, competing on “quality” against these new-market disruptors. Meanwhile, the disruptors, once they establish themselves at the market’s low end, move into the space previously held by the incumbents by producing cheaper, personalized content. It is not until the disruption is in its final stages that it erodes the position of the incumbents. This is the definition of the innovators’ dilemma.

There are two critical points to be made. First, the aggregators of today will be the original reporters of tomorrow. Those of us who care about good journalism shouldn’t dismiss the Buzzfeeds of the world because they aren’t creating high-quality reporting. Their search for new audiences will push them into original content production. Buzzfeed may be focused on cat videos and aggregation now, but disruption theory argues that content companies like it will move into the realm of the Huffington Post — which in turn, has already indicated its desire to compete more directly with The New York Times.

Second, and perhaps more important, is that despite the obituaries for quality journalism, we can take comfort in remembering that we’ve been here before. We need look no further than that same 1923 volume of Time magazine. Under a passage entitled “Machines Do It“:

“The public,” says Mr. Bliven in effect, “is always asking about Newspaper morals. But equally important with newspaper morals is newspaper intelligence. And both of them are changing drastically, dangerously, because of mechanical progress.”

Mr. Bliven is Bruce Bliven, at the time former managing editor of The New York Globe and soon to become editor of The New Republic. Bliven’s quote wasn’t given in an interview with a Time reporter. It was a rip-and-read from an article Bliven had written in that month’s Atlantic Monthly titled, “Our Changing Journalism.” Time’s report went on for several more paragraphs, summarizing and quoting.

We’ve been here before. The question is not, how aggregation is ruining journalism, but how traditional journalism will respond to the aggregation.

Editor’s Note: Reading David’s piece made me want to hunt down Bliven’s original essay. Closest I could find is this, an old how-to-write instruction book for schoolchildren that includes an excerpt of Bliven’s original piece. It still makes for provocative reading, almost a century later.

POSTED     Jan. 27, 2012, 10 a.m.
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