Opinionista Eve Dmochowska 11 September 2013

Why Moneyweb is right but Branko is wrong

Moneyweb is suing Fin24 for plagiarising its work, and Branko Brkic, the founder of Daily Maverick, is rather unhappy with Huffington Post for aggregating content. The former is right, the latter is wrong. Let’s explore.

Arianna Huffington has come under much criticism for the nature of her website, Huffington Post. The root of the criticism has a lot to do with the fact that Ms Huffington has managed to build – and sustain – a ridiculously successful website (AOL paid $315-million for it in 2011), and she seems to have done it with a relatively minimal content budget. She has over 6,000 bloggers writing for her for free, she aggregates content from hundreds of websites resulting in a never ending flow of “new” content on her site, and the (incorrect) perception is that she appeals to a low denominator of excellence. People, mostly those who are not part of the 45-million unique monthly users who visit her site, seem to not appreciate this apparent shortcut to success. News aggregation has become a dirty term.

But do you have any idea just how much new stuff happens every second on the Internet? You don’t. (Just click on the link and get a glimpse). The point is that just as we should be grateful the web offers us an opportunity to voice our ideas, read the long tail stories and allows quick dissemination of information, we should be petrified (and a bit pissed off) that we can’t consume all that is important to us. But wait! News aggregators help us out. Somewhere, thank god, it is someone’s job to open up a browser, search, read, click, cut, paste, edit, rinse and repeat over and over again, and then to curate what they think is important, relevant, entertaining, absurd or whatever other common thread they have identified as a niche. Then they assemble the audience that shares their hunger for that sort of stuff (no mean feat), and bingo… a lot of relief and satisfaction all around.

Well, actually, not everyone is that satisfied. Sometimes, the people who posted the original stories get a bit huffy. How dare Arianna get a hundred times as many views on her adaptation of a paid-for-by-someone-else piece as the original poster does? Where does she find the audacity to make money off it? Branko says that Huffington Post “has successfully managed to appropriate the work of the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, the Economist, WSJ, FT, to name just a few”.

Maybe, but they don’t always seem to mind that much. According to an article on Business Week, advertising campaigns from high profile advertisers such as the Economist do really well on Huffington Post. These advertisers consider Huffington Post a “like minded venue”. They could be right. Huffington Post was the first US digital media site to earn a Pulitzer Prize for its (in this case original) reporting.

For the most part, having a story picked up by another source is not considered to be a negative turn of events. A pick up that is done properly can be viewed as acknowledgment that the original writer can recognize a good story. At the very least, it draws fresh eyes to the topic that the original writer thought was worth writing about. And if another media outlet with a better method of spreading the story does just that, well, more power to them, and to the audience in general.

Maybe you heard the story of how the New York Times published a nine page (!) article titled “How companies learn your secrets”. And, on the same day, Forbes published an article titled “How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did”. Of these two, which are you going to click on? They both deal with the same topic: a Forbes writer read the New York Times article and summarised it under her own headline (and has received over 2-million page views thus far, apparently dwarfing the readership of the original article and maybe netting as much as $15,000 in advertising revenue for Forbes).

So did the New York Times writer throw his toys out the cot? Nope. When asked to comment he said, “Complaining about someone re-writing reporting is kind of like kvetching about the rain: it’s pointless, because you’ll end up wet regardless of your protestations. Every journalist relies on other people’s work. I became a reporter because I wanted to find important ideas and share them. Whether that happens through my authorship, or someone’s summary, is less important to me than making sure the news is spread.”

He goes on to make some other excellent points, so you might want to read that article too. (Also, to be fair, it should be noted that his original New York Times article was an excerpt from his then upcoming book “The Power of Habit” which after release was named “one of the best books of the year” by the Wall Street Journal. No such thing as bad publicity, I guess. )

The trick for news aggregators is to curate and adapt the stories that they find elsewhere to suit their own audience. As a commentator on the above story said, “Remixing content is an important part of creating content on the web”. And let’s be very clear about this: the expectation of the aggregator’s audience has to be different to the expectation of the source’s audience. Anything else doesn’t make sense, and is just thinly veiled theft of content.

And that is why MoneyWeb is completely correct to go after Fin24 in court.

To understand the distinction between the way that Huffington Post adapts content to its readers, and the way that Fin24 doesn’t bother, let’s consider the first article MoneyWeb added as an annexure in their court papers, through the (hypothetical) eyes of various news sites:

Moneyweb’s actual headline: “Annual packages of MPs may reach well over R1m”

My Hypothetical Huffington Post headline: “MPs can buy HOW many new pairs of Louboutins with their pay hikes?”

My Hypothetical Daily Maverick headline: “Why exactly are South African MPs getting some of the highest government pay hikes in the world?”

My Hypothetical New York Times headline: “Mr Zuma recommends a pay hike for government officials, while miners continue to strike for ‘a living wage’”

And Fin24.com’s actual headline? “MPs to get huge pay hikes”

And Fin24’s content doesn’t get any more original after that. At all. That is no aggregation. It’s under-the-belt slyness that stinks. As a reader, I am not served anything different than what I would have received had I just read the original Moneyweb article. The Fin24 story doesn’t seem that much briefer that the original, it doesn’t come from an obscure source unlikely to be familiar to me, and most importantly, the entire article carries only one, very flimsy, reference to the original source. Go to any other reputable news aggregator to see the proper way to handle this.

If an aggregator cannot bring their own style, their own point of view, an unexpected opinion, or a valuable insight to the table, then the only thing that is left for the aggregator to do is to create a two or three line post that comprises a headline, a brief sum up of the key point, and a link to the original article. No one, I think, would ever begrudge the Fin24 audience’s right to have knowledge of what is happening to our politicians’ salaries, even if Fin24 was not able to report it from their own sources. But why should we begrudge Moneyweb getting their due for researching and writing the story in the first place, if no one has added anything new to the “amended” story?

In fact, Daily Maverick has an excellent example of brief summaries of others’ content in their daily “While you were sleeping” email that arrives in your inbox every morning. It has brief summaries of the most important events of the past 24 hours, as sourced from (and linked to) other sites. No one expects Daily Maverick to have news bureaus in every market, but we do expect to be kept up to date with current affairs. This is a fair and transparent way of doing that. No one is fooled into thinking that Daily Maverick is the original source of the news.

A good news aggregator respects its sources, undisputedly increases the potential audience of the news being reported and has a symbiotic relationship with the source. But most importantly, a good aggregator adds value to the reader that the reader could not easily get elsewhere. This can take the form of new context to an existing story, an overall focus on a unique niche, or content that has been adapted to suit a readership that is not targeted by the original content. Fin24 fails on all these counts, which is why it should lose the court case. DM


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