I Will Never Pay for “News Aggregation.” Would You?

April 27, 2010

A couple of days ago I realized why news organizations are having such a difficult time getting people to pay for news. It’s because, most of the time, what we are fed by the media isn’t real reporting, it’s just news aggregation. Let me explain:

I was getting ready for work in the morning and I had the TV on in the background. My local news station was presenting a story about a 19 percent jump in foreclosures in March. As the newscaster read the report, a bar graph popped onto the screen giving a graphical representation of the gloomy housing figures. Their source was a “RealtyTrac” survey performed in April. All in all, the report took about thirty seconds and then it was over.

Just a few minutes later, the national morning news show came on. And their top story was—no surprise here—a summary of the RealtyTrac survey. Essentially, they gave the same exact report as the local news had given. Sure, the wording was a little different, and the report was slightly longer, but it contained the same basic information, gathered from the same source.

As soon as I got into my car to go to work I turned on my local NPR station (WBUR Boston, which is great by the way) and, surprise surprise, they were rehashing the same exact report, a few words changed, but the same basic facts from the same source. I think that I mumbled to myself something like, “This isn’t journalism. It’s just ‘news reading’.” I couldn’t think of any other term for what I was hearing. It’s no surprise that no one wants to pay for this stuff; the “reporters” don’t actually add any value to what they are reporting on. They are just repeating what has already been said.

If I were to put up a blog post titled “Forclosure Actions Spike Despite Federal Aid” summarizing the same story, would that make me a journalist? I think most of you would argue that it certainly would not! And yet, this is exactly the kind of thing that many people in the industry are arguing we should pay for.

Out of curiosity, I decided to do some research and find out where this story actually originated from. It turns out that “Disclosure Actions Spike Despite Federal Aid” was a Reuters story written by Lynn Adler, the one real journalist in this chain of repetition. Surely, all of the other organizations in this chain paid for access to this story, but in the end, there was only one real journalist involved. So congratulations to Lynn Adler on her excellent work. She’s the only person who actually produced something worth paying for.

But here’s where the plot thickens. After my morning workload, I got back into the car to head out to lunch. The same exact story was on WBUR’s “Here and Now” once again. It started out just the same as the others. Jane Clayson was in for Robin Young that day and she began by repeating the same facts that I’d already heard three times that day. I could practically mouth each of the words as she read them:

“RealtyTrac reports the number of homes lost to foreclosure soared by 35 percent in the first quarter of 2010, compared to last year. That’s the largest increase in five years.” Etc. etc. I was just about ready to switch to another station.

But then, Jane did something different. She took the story further by conducting an interview with Stella Hopkins of the Charlotte Observer. She had taken the time to develop a piercing set of questions in order to use this interview to take the story to the next level. “Ah ha!” I thought. “I’ve found another journalist!”

The only parts of this process worth paying for are those conducted by the original journalist, Lynn Adler, and by Jane Clayson who made a real attempt to expand the story. Everyone else was just taking part in “news aggregation,” which is something that I don’t pay for, and will NEVER pay for.

What do you think? Am I right, or am I full of it? Leave a comment to let me know.

Think outside the newsstand,
Joe

image by AMagill

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