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This week for my #trending column, I take a look at something that many journalists have decried for years: news aggregators.

A Harvard Law report I found on the Nieman Journalism Lab does a really great job explaining what an aggregator is.

At its most basic, a news aggregator is a website that takes information from multiple sources and displays it in a single place.

But beyond that, there are different kinds of aggregators. The report breaks them into four categories: feed aggregators, such as Google News; specialty aggregators, such as hyperlocal sites; user-curated, such as Reddit and Digg; and blog aggregators, such as Gawker and Huffington Post.

My focus was on blog aggregators — “websites that use third-party content to create a blog about a given topic.”

The Huffington Post was one of the very first examples of a blog aggregator, and since its inception, journalists across the world have cried foul when they see their work picked up and repackaged on the site.

Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times, wrote an editorial in the New York Times Magazine in 2011 that explains why, at times, he finds aggregation so egregious.

Too often it 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.

He goes on to call out Ariana Huffington, founder and CEO of HuffPost, which first launched in 2005.

Last month, when AOL bought The Huffington Post for $315 million, it was portrayed as a sign that AOL is moving into the business of creating stuff — what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call “content.” 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.

Of course, Huffington fired back with a piece of her own. In response to Keller’s claim that most of what her sites offers is “celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications,” she wrote:

I wonder what site he’s been looking at. Not ours, as even a casual look at HuffPost will show. Even before we merged with AOL, HuffPost had 148 full-time editors, writers, and reporters engaged in the serious, old-fashioned work of traditional journalism.

And she certainly has a point. In fact, this year — one year after these media bigwigs threw down — the Huffington Post was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting. It’s clear original reporting is being done, but many of their aggregation practices are still under fire.

***

What sparked my initial idea to write about this topic came from Gawker, however, when I noticed one of News Sentinel reporter Jamie Satterfield’s latest stories had been “ripped off” (her words).

On Aug. 21, Jamie spent the day in court and filed a story we published online and in the News Sentinel — Hot fudge sundae dispute leads to legal hot water. According to her story, a jury found a 43-year-old Knoxville man guilty of misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct. His alleged crime? Punching a McDonald’s assistant manager over a hot fudge sundae.

"The food appeared to be right, but the dessert, it had chocolate on the bottom," Wilson told jurors. "The hot fudge should be on top. It freezes up when you get fudge on the bottom of it. I asked them to redo it." 

It’s certainly a bizarre story, but frankly that’s nothing new for East Tennessee. We get lots of those, and Jamie has reported on plenty of them.

So I wasn’t surprised when I saw the story had been picked up by Gawker — Man Convicted of Assault for Punching McDonald’s Employee After Sundae Arrived with Hot Fudge on the Bottom, the headline reads.

The thing is, this story, which has a Gawker byline, was clearly nothing more than a rewrite of Jamie’s story. The only credit given to her or to the News Sentinel was hyperlinked text (“Wilson told a jury of his peers”) within the article. No mention of Jamie Satterfield; no mention of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

This hyperlink would be really easy to overlook. And to most, it appears as if the story belongs to Gawker. The reality is Jamie spent, by her own estimate, around 10 hours total reporting and writing/filing the story. Gawker likely spent around 15 minutes.

"It makes (me) angry, and it really frustrates me. This is a business and it’s a career, and our information and reporting is what we make our money on. And so when you have people who can just take your material, in a lot of ways it hurts the paper and my career, personally. It’s a real big pet peeve," Jamie told me.

***

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying news aggregators should go. In truth, they provide many benefits. Stories you may otherwise miss are brought to the forefront of our national conversation, and we’re better informed because of it.

But I think they can definitely be handled in a better way.

In 2008, a Chicago alternative weekly called HuffPo out for allegedly lifting concert reviews they had printed. Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti responded, saying the re-printing was a mistake. He went on to say their model for aggregating other publications’ content is to send traffic to their sites.

"You tease, you pull out a piece of it, and then you have a headline or link out," Peretti said. "Generally publishers are psyched to have a link."

And, yes, that WOULD be great. After all, we at knoxnews.com have a system for sharing with other area publications. Our agreed-upon rule? Copy the first three to four paragraphs, and include a link where readers can go to read the entire story. No rewriting; no piracy.

But when I look around at how aggregators handle the majority of their aggregation, I find that’s the exception, not the rule.

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