News As A Popularity Contest

Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, has referred to aggregation Web sites and the news ‘trending’ phenomenon that regularly permeates the Twitter-sphere and other social networks as the “American Idol”-ization of news.

This blunt characterization of Web-based news reporting reflects a clear sense of disillusionment I imagine many journalists and publishers equate with digital services that scrape—as opposed to produce—original journalism; also ranking news based on popularity rather than informational merit.

“Aggregation” can mean smart people sharing their reading lists, plugging one another into the bounty of the information universe. It kind of describes what I do as an editor. But too often it amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model. —Bill Keller

Oops. Did I just aggregate Bill Keller’s thoughts?

In light of the news of HuffingtonPost.com surpassing NYTimes.com in online traffic, nagging questions of how digital technologies continue to discombobulate traditional news media outlets once again surface.

I can already hear the flurry of blog posts and Tweets authoritatively proclaiming the end of traditional journalism (again) as we know it. The rise of The Huffington Post, and other so-called social media news reporting portals touting their legions of unpaid bloggers contributing vast amounts of material is unsustainable, some might say. To pessimists this signals yet another negative seismic shift in how the digital news system threatens to undermine journalistic integrity and render the old pillars of media (newspapers, magazines, and television) obsolete. To optimists these technological changes are driving a new journalism model, one based on a evolving set of principles fueled by social networks, open collaboration, and ubiquitous Internet access. Sustainable or not only time will tell.

While The Huffington Post might outrank The New York Times on its high number of contributors and daily traffic, The New York Times easily outranks The Huffington Post on established credibility and quality rather than quantity of material.

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