Many have argued that content aggregation is the way to go for the internet. Some have gone so far as to claim “aggregate, or be aggregated”. So far, no one’s disputing the inevitability of such a future. Under the radar, WSJ owns All Things Digital, and NTY runs Blogrunner. Both are experimenting with those ventures to hopefully work out some kind of business model.
This is done, despite venom spouted in the background that claim those aggregators tapeworms or parasite, siphoning off the hard labour of old media whose only mistake is playing by the rules. Aggregators in the meantime, have taken off.
Digg started the trend off, by promoting a system of voter-sourced news that is real time, streaming, and democratic. A slew came on board soon after. Stumbleupon, Reddit, Sphinn, and many topic and industry-specific Diggs have sprung up to varying degrees of success. In the last few years, Twitter – broadcasted in 140 characters or less, is the service that keeps on giving. It is now becoming the tool people turn to break news, do status updates, and my favourite use: alternative social bookmarking service.
The news media is now scrambling to find a feasible business plan that could replace its print readers, and to stop the cannibalization of its content, indexed and marketed by Google, without any monetary compensation. Media moguls have blasted everything from Google, bloggers, to those aggregators for egregious use of their content. The proponents have told those old guards to bugger off. Those old men retorted by threatening to cut access.
This carries about as little weight as the paper it’s printed on. People that used to make a decent living from writing and reporting, have of course, been squeezed between a rock and a hard place. No one likes to talk to themselves. So the goal of any self-respecting reporter is to get exposure, and engage with readers. Blogging has taken much of the prestige of reporting away. Nowadays, anyone who has the patience to sit down and write may win a sizeable audience in due course.
Reporters write to spread ideas, to inform, to shock, to educate, and to communicate. To threaten to barricade their writings behind a paid wall does little to solve the problem, as most will sooner have their breadline cut off, than their reputation and influence diminished, to which the accessibility of their work is based upon. The world of blogging has opened a floodgate to give voice to academics and those previously toiling behind closed doors, whose impact has been so profound that the CSM has bravely argued that without special skills, reporters are not worth the high pay that many had taken for granted.
Having grown up in the digital age, I take the spread of the information and all that is intangible online – from downloads of every possible kind, to the free and somewhat socialist dissemination of information on the web, for granted. For the same reason that anti-piracy campaigns have largely failed to resonate with my generation and ones that follow mine, to even suggest the idea of paying for online activities, no matter how crucial it might be (i.e. Facebook), is blasphemy. So the subscription model is pretty much out, unless you pedal the kind of information that people would be willing to pay for its timeliness and exclusivity (i.e. real time financial news).
That is, of course, where ingenuity comes in. Since the start of web 2.0, various parties have been exploring and experimenting with feasibilities of various business models. The most popular and successful ones: the freemium models exercised by a lucky few, and the ad-supported model by the rest.
For most newspapers, the freemium model was first attempted, before most relented and opened the flood gate. The thing with information is that its relevance and value is inversely proportional to its time on the market, and directly proportional to its reach. The more time lapses, the less valuable the information becomes. And the less people that reach it, the less relevance it holds. Thus for any serious disseminator of information, it makes no sense to fence people off from the work of your talented writers. Alternatively, they figured the advertising dollars they will get for eyeballs will eventually make up for the loss in subscription revenue. After all, newspapers have always gotten bybased on the triangular relationship amongst the publishers, its readers, and the advertisers.
As economy soured, this heavily advertising reliant model got strenuously tested, and many will not survive. Some also doubted the long-term sustainability of a business model whose survival depends on (sometimes) highly intrusive messages that readers disdain. A new generation of advertisers have found limited results from interrupting people’s online presence. Many are now spending their dollars to establish their own online presence, instead of depending on media publications to disseminate its messages.
Now back to the idea of content aggregation and how they are supposed to save media. The idea is simple: nobody, not even the NYT, WSJ, or Washington Post, can come up with close to 5% of what one individual might want to consume in any given day. Our taste of media must be tailored, targeted, and fitting with our individual taste and preferences. Thus the age of RSS feeds and personalizable start pages emerged. Everything from Netvines to Streamy to Skygrid have emerged to provide streaming, personalized information.
But is this a fair system? And more importantly, is this a sustainable system? Aggregators work with the assumption that there will always be those that will produce the content available for aggregation – an assumption not altogether unrealistic in the short run. But should content providers become financially frustrated and either get out of the business of news reporting or join the aggregation party in the not so far off future, the value chain may become ever so constrained. So will we be left with the scenario of bare bone newswire services, an army of amateur and professional bloggers relying on advertising money for their livelihood, and endowments and grants for the more labour and dollar intensive investigative reports?
If and when aggregators find a feasible path to profitability, then surely, the content providers that collectively contribute to the success of such services will demand a piece of the action. A way to fairly and equitably distribute the gains will hopefully emerge by then.
picture source: myvictoriansecret