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