September 23, 2009 -- There are two kinds of newsagents on the Net: One gathers and publishes news; the other collects reports from many sources and profits from organizing them. And the former regards the latter with mixed feelings. On one hand, news aggregators bring readers to a Web site. On the other, they are seen as parasites. Opinion remains divided as to whether their overall effect is positive or negative.
For example, a newspaper employs journalists who gather news, conduct interviews and then write stories. Then aggregator sites like Google News collect those stories and publish abstracts and links to them either from a home page or in response to a user's search query.
Hubert Burda's Sharp Criticism Of Google
In the past, German publisher Hubert Burda -- whose company publishes over 250 magazines worldwide, runs one television channel and around 30 radio stations and employs over 7,000 people -- has been one of Google News' most outspoken critics in Europe. In the face of dramatic declines in advertising revenues and growing competition from Internet information sources -- where news often costs nothing -- Burda has said that, "all of those taking part in this area must agree to the rules of the game in order for there to be fair competition."
Publishing houses don't earn nearly enough online, Burda told the business publication manager magazine in an interview earlier this year. "Currently there is only one victor in this area -- and that's Google with its links from search queries to concrete content offerings," said the media mogul, who is also president of the German Association of Magazine Publishers (VDZ). Burda described Google as a "killer application" which delivered almost half of all traffic to local journalism Web sites and yet managed to keep almost one-third of all Internet advertising revenues in Germany for itself. "All of that without making any investment of its own in the expensive business of journalism," Burda noted.
Burda called for amendments to copyright and even suggested that Google should pay for the use of news it had not produced itself. Of course, the search engine wanted nothing to do with this suggestion.
Burda Launches News Website To Compete With Google
Last week Burda put his money where his mouth is. His company has been one of the most active online since the mid-1990s, and he wasn't about to cede the news business to Google News. Burda planned to compete directly with Google. And late last week Burda's Tomorrow Focus Portal gave birth to the Web site Nachrichten.de, which translates from the German as "News.de".
Burda's aggregator site carries headlines from 482 sources in German publishing and posts them online. The site offers a variety of added extras -- from news tickers and personalization options right down to choosing which sources you get your news from.
However, as is the case with other news aggregators, there is still plenty to find fault with. The most problematic aspect is the way in which the news aggregator, like its predecessors, works. The algorithm such systems use is based on quantity rather than quality. In other words, the more times a news item is mentioned, the more likely it is to show up prominently on the news aggregator site.
News Aggregators 'Reward Laziness And Uniformity'
A system like this rewards laziness and uniformity. It punishes research, subjectivity and original or exclusive content, which it tends to downplay, instead showing a preference for agency or uniform stories that are almost identifcal from news site to news site. In showing how much information many media outlets have in common, news aggregators make journalists look as though they are one of many cooks working around a stew made from leftovers. At the same time they encourage that image by ignoring the information that isn't shared -- which devalues the media, and the work it does generally.
For example, where did readers first learn about what was going on at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? Through the first stories about the prison? Or through in-depth features and first-person reporting? For Google News and all the other news aggregator Web sites, the most important information, based on the numbers, would have come mostly from widespread, and widely rehashed, wire service copy or even press releases issued by the US military. Indeed, they place greater value on mass-circulated stories than on exclusive reports. The unsavory revelations about what really went on in the prison came later, the result of work done by real journalists.
A News Service German Publishers Can Profit From
Burda is trying to come up with a news aggregator service that avoids some of the typical pitfalls of the traditional aggregator Web sites. At the time of the launch of Nachrichten.de there were offers sent to every possible publishing firm and any news producers that would allow the sharing of any eventual revenues from the site. In a praiseworthy initiative, Burda openly declared how it would work. Twenty percent of the profit from any news item that was linked to would go back to the company that had produced it. The money would eventually add up and when the sum got to €500 or higher, there would be a pay out. There was no time limit on the €500 though and it would probably take a lot of publishing companies a long time to get to that sum. Indeed, the high sum ensures that Burda's payouts won't be too high.
Publishers willing to have their articles reprinted in their entirety on the Nachrichten.de Web site are paid 50 percent of money from advertising revenues derived from that page. By doing so, Burda is offering a revenue sharing model similar to that offered to US publishers by much maligned Google.
Burda's news aggregator leaves a sweet and sour taste in the mouths of German publishers. With Nachrichten.de, the company is demonstrating how news aggregator services can be a better deal for those news producers that it uses. But in many other ways, Nachrichten.de is just another news aggregator with all the typical, systemic weaknesses.
Is It Clever To Put Quantity Before Quality?
Small publishing companies are being given a chance to become part of something bigger and to make a little more money as a result of that. But as a result the pressure to deliver popular -- that is, friendly to the mass market -- material will also increase. Still, it would be better if Burda or others would develop an aggregator that would reward quality instead of quantity -- that sought out pearls of wisdom rather than mass-produced goods.
To find that gathering together of analysis, commentary, backgrounders and interviews, for the whole brightly colored bouquet of information, the general public will still go elsewhere. They go to the newspapers, Web sites, weekly magazines and special interest titles that are very different from your average news aggregator -- and Burda is active in this area too.
With Nachrichten.de, Burda is showing that it is not prepared to let go of the news market. That's all right -- and the company's approach has more integrity than many other aggregators. In the end, though, quantity should not be allowed to trump quality.