Words mean things: no, all journalism is not aggregation

Lots of people today on Twitter have linked to Robert Niles’ post on OJR spanking people for “whining” about aggregation, and reiterating a point he made last month – in essence, along with a lot of other very sensible and useful points, he argues that all journalism is aggregation.

Let’s get one thing clear – I agree with a lot of what Niles says in these two posts, though I’d probably step aside from the aggressive tone of his second piece, on account of how chastising people for being defensive is only going to make them more defensive. He makes some excellent points and I wish more news organisations took them on board.

But claiming that all journalism is aggregation is akin to deciding that Flickr’s homepage list of interesting images is the same thing as taking all the photographs yourself. It’s not. It’s patently obvious that it’s not.

Words mean things. We already have the words “information management and presentation” to encompass the various skills that journalists use, whatever form their journalism takes – that covers both reportage and aggregation nicely. We already have the word “editing” to describe the process of deciding what to put in a newspaper or on a website. And we have the words “curation” and “contextualisation” too, though they’re much more jargon-ish than those others, to describe elements of aggregation that involve editorial decision-making, peripheral research and so on.

Speaking of jargon, though, aggregation has not entirely solidified as a term. The future-of-news field has a terrible habit of taking perfectly good words – like “entrepreneur” – and blurring the definition to include some very different things – like “self-employed freelancer”. Perhaps Niles’ thoughts are symptomatic of this sort of semantic land-grab – is he simply redefining the word “aggregation” to cover all forms of information management and presentation? Because if so, I fail to see much use in the term – it’s too broad to be helpful in understanding the specific challenges journalists and news organisations face.

However we’re defining it, news aggregation is not evil. It’s not the enemy. It’s wonderful that new web-based tools exist now that enable people to do this work faster, better, in new and exciting ways; it’s great that Google and Flipboard and Zite and so on are doing it algorhithmically in such innovative directions. Journalists should welcome the fact that our work reaches more people and that the job of curating content is becoming as valued and valuable a part of the journalistic ecosystem as the job of creating it. @acarvin’s work is just as important in reporting the Middle East uprisings as any single reporter on the ground. At my workplace, the daily newspaper roundups and tips collections and lists of big commodities stories are useful and valuable just as original content is.

But they’re not the same. They don’t serve the same function. And writing a three-line drop intro on a colour piece is not the same thing as deciding to include something in the paper or on the home page is not the same thing as Google News automagically deciding your story deserves to be the first link. Reporting needs different skills, tools and timescales from aggregation. And both terms incorporate multitudes of smaller specialisations.

Aggregation should be valued. I understand and can sympathise with the desire to conflate something that is valuable but not well-regarded with something which is already seen as respectable. But I doubt its wisdom in this case. We need to fight for news organisations to recognise that curation and aggregation are part of a holistic approach to journalism and add enormous value to their work, yes – that I can wholeheartedly and full-throatedly support. But telling them that they’re already doing it is not going to lead to the changes we need, or any greater understanding of the problems we face.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

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