Aggregation is an aggravating fact of online life.
Imagine three traditional dailies in the state of Indiana: the Herald, the Messenger and the Town Crier. In addition to their print publications, each publishes online via its website.
Imagine that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visits the state capital, Indianapolis.
All three papers send reporters to Indianapolis. Also attending are members of the presidential campaign traveling press corps, including reporters from The Associated Press and major newspaper chains.
The next day, consumers of the print editions of the Herald, the Messenger and the Town Crier read their paper’s version of the story. It might run with a sidebar written by the AP or another wire service, but basically, one version of the event is presented.
Online, though, all of the versions of the story — those written by all of the local reporters and those written by the national press — turn up on the results page when a reader searches for “Sanders” or “Indianapolis.”
And thus we have, I think, the phenomenon that was bemoaned during a breakfast conversation described by Jim Rutenberg in an article in The New York Times on April 17.
Rutenberg described his conversation with Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico, and Mike Allen, a Politico journalist. VandeHei was describing what their new venture would NOT do.
“It starts with Mr. VandeHei’s admittedly provocative proposition that ‘journalists are killing journalism.’ They’re doing this, he says, by ‘stubbornly clinging to the old ways.’ That’s defined as producing 50 competing but nearly identical stories about a presidential candidate’s latest speech, or 700-word updates on the transportation budget negotiations.” —For News Outlets Squeezed From the Middle, It’s Bend or Bust
I’d encourage you to read Rutenberg’s article long and nuanced article top to bottom. This post, though, just focuses on a fragment of the article, that bit about “50 competing but nearly identical stories.”
Herd journalism has always existed. One example: When the Challenger space shuttle blew up after launching on January 28, 1986, hordes of journalists descended on Concord, N.H., the home of Christa McAuliffe, the “teacher in space” who was on the shuttle.
The Associated Press’s hub bureau for Northern New England was in Concord, which also was (and remains) the home of an award-winning daily, the Concord Monitor. The AP would be sending out stories and photos from Concord to its members around the world.
But the fact that the story was covered didn’t matter. It was a national story, and the nation’s newspapers wanted their version of the story for their readers.
Though fewer newspapers today can afford long-distance remote coverage, it still occurs, certainly at the in-state level.
But today, all of the stories are published online as well as in print. Thus, due to the aggregating effect of search engines, online readers are faced with many versions of the same story.
It’s confusing for the readers and seems inefficient of the news-gatherers, and it leads to the questionable new field of designing headlines to win click-throughs, regardless of whether or not the headline is truly representative of the story.
What’s a newspaper to do? What should journalists and the industry, collectively, do?
I promised to keep posts short. We’ll noodle through some ideas to address this issue in part 2 of this post, to come.