Bill Keller, 62, is a reporter by trade. Today, he’s Executive Editor at The New York Times, nevertheless, he identifies as a reporter. This Sunday, the Time’s Magazine will carry an article by Keller on the state of journalism, false celebrity and the artlessness of aggregation. The piece is also an open attack on Arianna Huffington.
Here’s Keller’s primary beef:
“Aggregation” can mean smart people sharing their reading lists, plugging one another into the bounty of the information universe. It kind of describes what I do as an editor. But 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.
The queen of aggregation is, of course, Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.
In a rebuttal on The Huffington Post, Ms. Huffington suggests that Mr. Keller might be “unsettled by the fact that, when combined, The Huffington Post and AOL News have over 70 percent more unique visitors than the New York Times, and that HuffPost/AOL News’ combined page views in January 2011 were double the page views of the Times (1.5 billion vs. 750 million).”
Good guess, but I doubt AOL’s Web traffic is the root of Keller’s unsettled feelings. He’s a reporter. A craftsman of serious first-hand accounts from the front lines. In fact, Keller won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his reporting on the breakup of the former Soviet Union. That’s what “newspapering” is, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to sit by and watch his profession get sucked up in to the colossal digital vacuum.
My thoughts are this: there’s very little original thought in the media, or anywhere else, for that matter. Keller rightly suggests that aggregation, “kind of describes what I do as an editor.” Exactly. Reporters and editors, mainstream and otherwise, are constantly influenced by one another, by competitive pubs, PR pitches and events themselves. The question then isn’t about collecting, or aggregating, it’s about sourcing. Reporters who compose stories based on first-hand accounts are in a different league, as are pubs that fact-check their reporters’ stories. New media may move too fast for all that, but standards are standards. Craft is craft. Cutting corners to run in the digital race is not acceptable to a man like Keller.