Robert Niles : Journalism Should Embrace Online News Aggregation

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Robert Niles, from his bio page at

“What’s the difference between aggregation and creating journalism?” Robert Niles asks in a March 2 post at the Online Journalism Review.

His essay, an edited transcript of remarks made at the WAN-IFRA Future of News Media and Journalism Conference in Singapore, argues that journalism needs to negotiate the space between old models of ethics and new models of financial efficiency.

Niles, a journalist, who worked as an Internet editor for top newspapers, the (Denver) Rocky Mountain News and the Los Angeles Times, calls his opening query a “trick question” because, according to him, aggregation and content production are actually “the same thing.”

“In journalism, our ‘original’ content always has been the product of aggregation,” he writes. “We aggregate interviews from sources; we aggregate documents that we ask find or ask for; we aggregate our observations of people, places and events.”

Niles argues the real question is how to practice aggregation/creation in a way that offers the most monetary value and ethical/social value. It’s new aggregation–what Niles describes as “using automation, like Google News does, and social media, like Facebook, to bring together sources of information,” vs. old aggregation (journalism)–“with a traditional newsroom model for reporting, editing and page design.”

New aggregation offers better value, Niles says. “Even if a traditional newspaper delivers more social benefit to an audience than an online aggregator, the difference in production costs favors the online upstart.”

“But is there any social value in the cheaply produced aggregation that we’re now seeing proliferate around the Internet?” he asks, writing,

The challenge for the newspaper industry now is to take a look at what these start-up aggregators are doing and perhaps, from that, learn what traditional newsrooms can do to change, to aggregate the information that they’ve been collecting from their communities in ways that are less expensive, and that would better serve the community.

Niles suggests that integrating reader-contributed content rather than marginalizing it to separate pages may be one way to adapt new aggregation techniques toward increasing the dollar value of high social-value old journalism.

And if journalism is analogous to aggregation, then reader-contributed content is also equivalent to reporting. Journalism must also mold, translate, and vet that reporting/raw material. “We need people who can create tools that support thriving, responsible online communities,” Niles writes, “instead of relying on off-the-shelf commenting and discussion forum tools that are too easily hijacked by trolls.”

Niles also calls for a two-way street; you aggregate my back, I’ll aggregate yours. “We’ve got to get over the mindset that aggregation is a bad thing,” he writes. “That mindset keeps us from developing tools that allow readers to aggregate our content, and by doing so, becoming partners with us in an information community.”

However, aggregation can sometimes be a bad thing. Sharing content, this two-way street Niles describes, only works if the aggregated and the aggregator feel that they are both receiving some benefit, or at least respect. That’s why journalists put quotes in quotation marks, ask people before they interview them and cite sources and facts.

Niles doesn’t stress some of the important baselines that anyone, whether aggregator or journalist, should follow in dealing with content, ideas, or stories created by other people in this “information community”–giving credit, linking, attributing quotes, respecting scoops, etc. (StinkyJournalism has written more about that in two other posts.)

However, he does make sure to clarify in a comment below his post, that aggregation, as he describes it, does not accommodate “scraping” or republishing others’ content in full without attribution or credit. If pushed too far, “scaping” is plagiarism. Arguably, if journalism is aggregation, “scraping” is not.

Many journalists might balk at the thought that their practice is in any way equivalent to what most people think of as modern aggregation. But Niles does have a point that journalists shouldn’t reject new tools to gather, discuss, and transmit news and information in the public interest if those tools manage to conform to the ethical principles of journalism already held.
Check out the lecture in full here.


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Robert Niles : Journalism Should Embrace Online News Aggregation

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