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Critics of HuffPo news “theft” are missing the point

Written on:December 22, 2011
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The Huffington Post is routinely accused of by other media outlets of engaging in what some call “over-aggregation,” by excerpting stories from newspapers and other sources without enough attribution or original content. The latest charge in Miami is that the local HuffPo site is guilt of actual theft, for lifting details from two Miami Herald news stories. But these accusations are nonsense, for a number of reasons — including the fact that the HuffPo stories contains plent of attribution, a link, and additional information that the original stories don’t. But even apart from that, media outlets that complain about “over-aggregation” are missing the point about how news works now.

The site that started waving the “theft” flag — a blog called Random Pixels, run by Miami-based photojournalist and writer Bill Cooke — spends a lot of time castigating The Huffington Post for not paying the bloggers who provide content for the site (another charge that comes up often), and then describes what the writer sees as the modus operandi of the empire that Arianna Huffington created and sold to AOL earlier this year for $ 315 million:

Here’s how it works: A newspaper pays a reporter to write a story. The reporter’s story appears on the paper’s website. Huffington Post then comes along and rewrites the story – adding no original reporting of its own – and posts the story on its site with a link to the original newspaper story.

What does “over-aggregation” consist of?

This is the core of the over-aggregation charge that some — including Boston Globe editor Marty Baron — like to describe as “theft,” or at the very least plagiarism. But is it? In the specific case of the Miami Herald stories, it’s hard to see how. While the Huffington Post versions repeat many of the basic facts that appear in the original articles (including details about the driver of a vehicle who was apparently texting before a fatal accident), even the supposedly incriminating excerpts that Cooke includes in his critical post contain repeated phrases attributing the news to the Herald. For example:

Not only was Cruz-Govin speeding, according to the Herald, he was a habitual texter. On the day of the accident, records show he sent 127 texts, the Herald reports.

Not only do the Huffington Post versions of these stories contain repeated references to the Herald, as well as multiple — and prominent — links to the original story (although it’s impossible to tell whether these were added before or after the critical blog post was published), but the texting-accident story is arguably better than the original. Why? For one thing, it includes dozens of links to more information about texting and driving laws, similar accidents, and other news that might be relevant, which the Herald story doesn’t. The Herald story doesn’t contain a single link of any kind.

Solution: add more value than an aggregator can

There have been plenty of accusations in the past year about the Huffington Post “over-aggregating” stories from other news outlets, including a case involving the Chicago Reader. But one of the problems with those kinds of charges is that no one can agree on what over-aggregation is, or whether it even exists. If an outlet — or even another newspaper — quotes facts and includes attribution and a link, as well as more information on the topic, how is that an offence? The short answer is that there is no offence, except to the pride of the original outlet, and possibly to their view of how the world should work.

As far as accusing the Huffington Post of theft is concerned, the law around this kind of thing is unclear at best: a famous court case in 1918 involving the Associated Press newswire upheld what has become known as the “hot news” doctrine, which makes it an offence to misappropriate breaking news for the purposes of financial gain. But in subsequent decisions, the courts have said that entities which engage in the same kind of aggregation the Huffington Post does — such as the financial-news service TheFlyonthewall — can to some extent escape this charge by including attribution. Whether that would help the Huffington Post remains to be seen.

But apart from the law, which is always several decades behind reality when it comes to technology, the fact remains that aggregation of the kind the Huffington Post does is the way things work now, and complaining about it (or trying to sue over it, as the Hollywood gossip blogger Nikki Finke did earlier this year) is like complaining that since the car was invented it’s gotten really hard to find a good buggy whip. Your content will be aggregated — so the challenge is to add more value than sites like the Huffington Post do. And publishers like the Herald might want to start with links.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Denise Chan and World Economic Forum

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