Does a rapper steal a melody line? Or sample it? Do aggregators steal the news? Or curate it?
Terrestial, old-fashioned, non-streaming radio is still around for two reasons: Commuting. And the fact that radio companies keep a ruthless eye on costs.
They use a variety of techniques to hold down the cost of programming. Much of the local programming on stations owned by iHeartmedia, the largest U.S. radio company, actually originates at its headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, from where it flows out for insertion into the transmission spectrums of local stations around the country. It’s an artful simulation, with weather cut-ins and even traffic reports used to create the pretense of a large staff of dedicated people working tirelessly to serve the local listener. But many of their smaller stations are staffed entirely by DJs who have never visited the town from which they are broadcasting.
The largest complement of people in a local radio station works in ad sales. A large station with a strong format might have five or six sales people. How many people in the newsroom? Maybe two. One covers morning drive. One evening drive.
It’s hard to add a minute of local news onto the end of a syndicated national news radio bulletin at the top of the hour if 1) you have only two people to do it and 2) you work for a company that doesn’t want to pay for news wires or local reporting. So ripping off the local paper became indispensable.
Sometimes a morning radio news person gets careless and simply reads the top three of four lines of a local story in the paper, word-for-word, with no attribution at all. It drives newspaper editors nuts.
Enter the Internet aggregators, a new breed of robber baron who conjured a whole new business by purloining just enough newspaper content to matter and not get hung, while claiming all the while they are actually doing their victims a promotional favor. Like the radio stations who pimp the morning edition of the local paper, the aggregators hide behind the outdated copyright doctrine of “fair use” to justify their thievery. Or, if they’re Google, they claim “the public good” as their motive. Please. I know a loss leader when I see one.
In a sense it’s fair enough, newspapers had a chance to build their own aggregation venture and famously, blew it. “I’ll be damned if I’ll let my news report appear below one from the New York Times,” one very well-known editor told me back then. “Alongside maybe, but not below.” He was not alone in the conceit that he could bottle up his news forever.
Newspapers handed over to the aggregators a century of investment in the expertise and apparatus required to publish the news – and let them build a whole new media franchise on their backs.
But it’s not just the specific language of a news report that matters, it’s the setting of the news agenda, the priorities, the weighting of events. As weak as they are, as lame as their digital response has been, the old bastions of print media are still influential in deciding the daily running order of general news across the country. Companies like Buzzfeed and Vox and Vice and Mashable and Quartz face a long, hard, expensive slog before they achieve that level of brand influence and market strength, no matter how “disruptive” they prove to be.
Many of the digital news companies now quickly growing in scale and attracting significant investment have been careless on the issue of copyright. Buzzfeed has been heavily criticized for using images with little or no attribution. And over at Quartz they appear to think that merely acknowledging the source of copyrighted material substitutes for obtaining permission to use it.
Quartz – qz.com – is a sweat shop seemingly focused on little more than the artful re-purposing of the work of others. They call this “curation.” Another term for it might be “cut and paste.” Here’s what their website says about one of their products, the “Daily Brief:”
“Each day, Quartz’s team of reporters culls from the world’s news sources to write a roundup of the most important, interesting things happening globally. The result: an expertly curated, read-in-five-minutes email that’s being called ‘the best thing in my inbox,’ ‘my news lifeblood’ and ‘[a] must read.’
The publishing trick of reporting on an article written elsewhere is as old as radio. But in digital it’s easier to do than ever before – and that can lead to what we here call “double tier pimping,” wherein the same original breaking story passes hands with minimal added value again and again and again. So, you start today at Quartz with a six-line post that Romney has decided not to run. It links out to another six-line post on the same subject, this time on the Daily Beast, where the only significant new item is a photo – unattributed. That in turn links to the original, comprehensive, 80-line New York Times article. This isn’t like cable television and its famous retransmission fees. Here, no money changes hands, not a dime.
The only thing that changes hands is value. If you look carefully, you can see it seeping out of the Renzo Piano building in midtown Manhattan.
Curation is often just a rip-off. Too much of the news web is a remix – because good journalism is expensive. It’s a highly-inefficient thing where software alone can’t solve the problem. Only human beings can do it.
Quality journalism is not essential to make money in the news business, supermarket shelves attest to that. But if you want to build a serious digital news brand that matters, pimping won’t get you there. It will take the development and production of original, well-researched news – and that takes a lot of people, a lot of time and a lot of money.
I’m an avid fan of Buzzfeed and despite what I’ve said here, even Quartz. But if they try to build credibility and competitive stature without people, time and money, they’ll end up marginalized. Just like radio news.