Downie vs Huffington: the parasite debate is back

Ex-Washington Post editor Len Downie came to City University last night to deliver the James Cameron lecture and inserted just one sting in the tail of his text, but a sharp one. Downie is not impressed, not impressed at all, by the Huffington Post.

The Huffposties are “parasites” he said, adding that much of the site’s “highly touted” web-traffic statistics were boosted by celebrity gossip. “They attract audiences by aggregating  journalism about special interests and opinions reflecting a predictable point of view on the left or the right of the political spectrum,  along with titillating gossip  and sex.”

This was the punch line: “It is not yet clear whether many – or any – of the aggregators will become profitable – or,  more importantly, whether  any of them will become sources of original,  credible journalism.” Downie’s lecture is in full here.

This barb triggered a cross response from the Huffington Post’s founder Arianna Huffington who defended the amount of original journalism on the site and said that they stick to “fair use” rules in giving only excerpts and links.

If I was being mischevous I would say that accusations of parasitic behaviour by aggregators line Len Downie up with Rupert Murdoch, who has in the past been heard calling aggregators bandits. But that might be stretching the truth a little. And all the journalism school textbooks say that is a Very Bad Thing.

For all the excellent stuff in Downie’s lecture – his main theme was that to survive, news publishing businesses must diversify their sources of income and experiment – I can’t quite agree about the aggregators. I understand (and have shared) the frustration of established newspapers when they see the edge taken off their material by aggregators, even in excerpts.

But there are two reasons why Downie’s “parasite” jab at the Huffpost is a ventilation of frustration and not a policy for news publishers.

  • Aggregators, like it or not, are going with the grain of linkage and browsing, two of the greatest new capacities of the web. While I can just see the possibility that some societies might tighten up copywright law on something like “fair use”, I don’t believe that the whole of the web’s possibilities for expanding your knowledge at speed are going to be cut down by new intellectual property laws.
  • The perception that established media were providing less and less value gained ground with news consumers before the internet. The internet accelerated, but did not start, the decline in newspaper circulations. For journalism to carve out a defensible, distinct value requires more than a more tightly-policed copywright law. It needs a clear definition of journalism and the end of news outlets all converging on the same point, to begin with. (I’ve argued some of these points with added backgroud here).

Optimism and faith is also necessary. Last night’s lecture audience was also reminded of this by the Cameron Award winner, the author and reporter Michela Wrong. Wrong told the audience that some of her friends who, like her, work as freelances were being forced out of journalism by simple poverty. But, she said, she remained optimistic. Transition is tough but eventually the market will find and value quality.

Update 24/9/10: my arguments above and more, expressed better by Jack Shafer here. Legacy media should worry more about predators than parasites.


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