The Huffington Post: The Hamburger Helper of Web Journalism

You may not have noticed, but there's a spitting match going on right now between Arianna Huffington and New York Times editor Bill Keller about the future of what we in the biz used to call journalism.

Yesterday, Keller posted an editorial titled "All the Aggregation That's Fit to Aggregate," focusing largely on the AOL-Huffington Post merger and the fact that, like a lot of popular news aggregators, HuffPo gets most of its traffic by piggybacking on the work of others.

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Keller got off a few real zingers, like:

"Aggregation" ... too often ... amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.

And:

Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company's announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.

Ouch. Not surprisingly, folks on the blogging side of the fence -- whose editorial mantra has always been "copy, paste, repeat" -- took some offense at this. They're acting like Keller is grandpa complaining about that newfangled thing called TellyVision.

Naturally, Arianna felt compelled to respond. Hers wasn't so zingy. Essentially she says: 1) HuffPo does original reporting, b) the New York Times does aggregate stories from other sources, and iii) our traffic is twice yours, so neener neener.

Arianna's right -- up to a point. The fact is, HuffPo's 148 full-time editorial employees do some original reporting. The New York Times does some aggregation. And HuffPo's traffic is double that of the Times.

But that's where the truth ends and the spin begins. The vast majority of content on HuffPo comes from underpaid editorial minions scraping news off other sites and slapping it up on the Web as fast as they can. The Times has 1,100 reporters doing mostly original reporting and often breaking stories of national importance. And when the Times does piggyback on a story originally published in, say, the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, it does its best to add new information. It's what us old media types call "moving the story forward."

The best you'll usually get in the blogosphere is somebody tacking on two or three sentences of speculation and/or half-baked opinion. That's not moving the story forward -- it's moving it sideways so that you can put your coffee cup down.

Granted, the glowing phosphors you are now reading, which for decades was a column in a national weekly magazine, is now a thrice-weekly blog. That means more aggregation and very little original reporting in this space (though I like to think I add something to what other people have written, if only pouring salt on a wound).

Still, I have to agree with grandpa: The New York Times is to the Huffington Post as sirloin steak is to Hamburger Helper.

Now, many people like Hamburger Helper, just as they like HuffPo. It stretches out the meat. But it won't be very tasty when all the cows have been slaughtered and there's no meat left to stretch.

Despite all of the horse manure tumbling from the mouths of AOL's Tim Armstrong and L'Arianna about being dedicated to "quality journalism" (while firing 200-plus actual journalists), the fact is people don't go to HuffPo to read the articles. They go there to get into a fight in the comments section. That's what's driving all that traffic.

But people do go to the New York Times (and WSJ and WashPo and so on) to read the articles. At least, they do now. And hopefully they still will be two, three, five years from now.

Those on the blogging side of the fence say original reporting will never go away completely, or that mainstream journos will simply go into the blogosphere to ply their craft. Yeah, maybe -- but if aggregators like HuffPo continue to republish their hard work for a fraction of the cost and effort (while sharing none of the revenues), these journos won't be in business for long. Then there won't be anything left to fight about on HuffPo.

Enjoy your Huffburger Helpers while you can.

Is Keller right? Arianna? Neither? Cast your votes below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "The Huffington Post: The Hamburger Helper of Web journalism," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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