According to Doug Lacombe, taking a dump is not necessarily the news

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Doug Lacombe, MBA, president, communicatto
Doug Lacombe, MBA, president, communicatto

As for editorial content, that’s the stuff you separate the ads with.—  Lord Thomson of Fleet

There are a lot of “tion” words being tossed about by Internet newsie types these days, the three most common being:

– syndication

– aggregation

– curation

The newfound ease of moving content around the Internet using such tools and techniques has led to a plethora of online publications, many with questionable quality and intent.

Lord Thomson of Fleet famously disparaged editorial content as “the stuff you separate ads with,” but in an era when content is theoretically king, using “pump and dump” cheap pseudo-editorial risks alienating readers and commoditizing (read: cheapening) the product. Publishers should shun the “tion” movement towards using Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds as cheap editorial to go around the ads if they wish to build long-term reader loyalty, which is the only font from which a business model can spring.

Syndication

Syndication was long the sole purview of wire services and news agencies, given the complexities of the antiquated and still in use ANPA format (American Newspaper Publishers Association) and the lack of an easily accessible network (i.e. the Internet). Then along came Extensible Markup Language (XML), its children HTML and RSS, and the Internet. Voila – standards for transport of content and a network to do it on were born. Now anyone can move content from website A to B, with free and open tools and little technical knowledge.

RSS in stealth mode

RSS is perhaps the least understood and most powerful form of content transport, possibly even outweighing the Reuters’ initiated NewsML (now under the stewardship of the International Press Telecommunications Council). NewsML was conceived around 2000 to replace ANPA and modernize news transport to include multimedia in news “packages.” It was proposed to editorial system vendors (I worked at one at the time) as the coming standard for “converged publishing.” A system vendor definitely couldn’t be left out.

Accordingly most major wires and news agencies converted to NewsML, but a funny thing happened on the way to media outlets adopting NewsML – the majority of their content migrated to the web and a new form of transport, RSS, stealthily took hold. Couple that with the well-documented economic woes of mainstream media, and recognizing that the only way NewsML takes hold is when editorial systems are upgraded (an increasingly unlikely scenario given the capital required), and you have the perfect conditions for RSS to flourish.

The problem is, it’s too darn easy, a veritable siren song to publishers trying to cut editorial costs to match the digital pennies they are swapping for print advertising dollars.

Example: HeraldEnergy.com

The first time I really noticed this was a few years back when the Calgary Herald launched HeraldEnergy.com. A fine little digital publishing experiment, it had one startling feature – news releases from Canada Newswire’s (now CNW Group) energy RSS feed were flowing onto its front page. At that time I was working for CNW, and I was thrilled that my clients’ news releases would get front-page coverage, but I was also aware a certain collision between church and state had just occurred. The Herald, to its credit, had oodles of original reporting as well as “journalistic wire” copy flowing through the site, so it was a fairly balanced experiment, but a radical change nonetheless.

News releases as news?

Around the same time commercial newswire BusinessWire (BW) decided to enter Canada in competition with CNW Group and Marketwire (the other existing, major player). Part of BusinessWire’s market launch promotion was the placement of BW’s news release feed onto prominent pages throughout Canada.com, something that at best can only be described as “advertorial.” Back in the day, news releases un-vetted by journalistic eyes would not grace the pages of any reputable publication, but the times they were a changin’.

Fast forward to current day and we have the familiar orange RSS “chiclet” icon appearing everywhere. From mainstream media sites to blogs, Twitter feeds, and Google searches, one can create a feed from almost anything. Forget mixed tapes or music and video mashups, now Yahoo Pipes allows us to do feed mashups. A little CBC, a dash of Postmedia, and a soupcon of CNN and – hey presto! – a custom feed.

Low-cost, automated news

And there’s the temptation: low-cost, automated news. Sounds good in theory right? Leech news from somewhere else and sell ads around it with none of the editorial cost? Or pump out commercial content under the veil of real news for other profit-making purposes? Lord Thomson might revel in such plentitude.

Only problem is, it doesn’t quite work. Once fully automated blog, Techmeme, discovered this in 2008 when its little robots reported Anna Nicole Smith had been hospitalized after she had been declared dead. Neat trick.

In her Mashable.com article “Can Robots Run The News?,” Sarah Kessler writes,: “While automatic news generators do a great job of compiling information that other people put online, those people still need to put it online. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center Study that tracked several news threads, 83 per cent of content was essentially repetitive. Of the 17 per cent of “news” that actually contained new information, nearly all of it came from traditional media outlets — a.k.a. people.”

I believe that unless publishers are prepared to add human aggregation and curation to the mix, they should shun syndication, lest they further commoditize the news business and strip away all value to readers and advertisers.

What do you think?

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Doug Lacombe, MBA, a 20-year media, marketing and Internet publishing veteran, is president of Calgary social media agency, communicatto.

Find out what else Doug has to say by reading his column and blog. Connect with Doug on his Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn accounts.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Great piece outlining how there are no easy answers in technology. RSS makes my life easier, but at the same time makes it more difficult because of the human aggregation and curation I have to add even to the content I’m interested in but also in determining whether there’s credibility to some of the stuff I read. And I’m not looking to create a business model (i.e. some way to make money) from the content. That further complicates things – trying to find a middle ground between a stable business model and providing something of value to the audience.

    • Thanks Diane! It is extremely complicated, and it seems clear the “easy way out” of robotic news won’t create sufficient value to attract paying readers or advertisers, so there’s one scheme down the tubes.

      You make a great point regarding personal use – I can barely aggregate and curate the stuff I wish to read, never mind prepare it en masse for an audience. So, labour costs do not necessarily go down, which helps not a whit with the revenue losses publishers are experiencing.

      In the end it feels like quality content must prevail, but how? Who will fund such manual curation?

  2. Doug, I hope you don’t mind a minor correction to your precise round-up of syndication/aggregation technologies and methods. Strictly speaking HTML is not a child of XML; HTML is from 1989, XML from 1998. Both are stripped-down derivates (or subsets) of SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language, 1986).

  3. Doug – thanks for this reminder for those who are pursuing the automated route to easy online communications. I see this not just in terms of news, but of course, when organisations are facing the requirements to “feed” content through social media. The reality is that it does take real people and real time to manage an effective social media strategy – as with other news management – but the trend seems to be that technology can make this easy for us. Of course, we can all use simple tools to feed updates to all our social media “outlets”, but the potential for engagement and intelligence is lost when we simply distribute information.

    There are many things that machines do better – but human input and personal contact is essential too, especially in communication where adding value means just that.

    • Agreed Heather! The most underestimated factor in social media engagement is labor … it takes people to have conversations, create stories, and interact. Automation is good, wise even, in small doses, but technology is rarely the panacea some hope it may be.

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