Thursday, 2 July 2009

Journalists are all just aggregators most of the time

As they flounder around trying to work out how to make a dollar as people turn increasingly to the internet as the source of their news, press proprietors have finally decided that "aggregator sites" are the evil bludgers stopping them from getting their just return. Australian News Limited boss John Hartigan was echoing his American master Rupert Murdoch on this subject on Wednesday while expressing confidence in an address to the National Press Club that people will pay for "well researched, brilliantly written, perceptive and intelligent, professionally edited, accurate and reliable" information.
I hope my old editor is right, and he probably is, but I see one very obvious weakness in the argument that it is some kind of aggregation free descendant of the traditional newspaper that will be providing the reading matter. For newspapers, when you really analyse them, are largely nothing more themselves than aggregators of information from other places. Very little of the daily content is unique to the paper that prints it but most is a collection of information from other newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals and public relations hand-outs, and words spoken in parliaments and courts and company meetings and descriptions of things seen on sporting fields or at murder scenes. What people over the years have been prepared to pay newspapers for is for providing the format in which all the words are brought together.
How much people all paid was determined more often than not by the economics of an aggregation process that was expensive with all its printing presses to spread the ink over newsprint. There were natural monopolies in many places and oligopolies in almost all of them which helped profits be made to hire the journalists like me who put it together to gather the readers that attracted advertisers. It was all very cosy.
But then along come these infernal computers and people not only can read from screens not newsprint but they do read from screens. And then, the greatest indignity of all, some fellows at Google work out how to continually aggregate news to sort out the kind of material that people actually want to read without intervention by a journalist being necessary. No printing press; no paper; no transport and negligible distribution costs and stuff all staff! In this new electronic world freed from monopoly rent seeking, things are going to be different. What people will need to pay for John Hartigan's for "well researched, brilliantly written, perceptive and intelligent, professionally edited, accurate and reliable" information is going to be substantially less than under the old system and with far less scope to skim off a considerable proportion for the people who hire the aggregtors.
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