I have a confession to make. I, Barry McBride, sometimes perform the function of an aggregator. Please accept my apologies.
By this, I mean, I don’t go out to Berea everyday (that’s Fred Greetham’s gig), am not texting and talking with sources all day, and have no plans to start doing either. Instead, I hover over a computer writing articles as news breaks, editing the submissions of far more informed writers, answering emails from visitors, taking care of any admin needs, hanging on the forums, and being a general nuisance. I put the title of “Publisher” on this effort, and hope no one notices that I basically just talk Browns when not working a “real” job.
So, it’s only with a smattering of hypocrisy that I say this: Aggregators are murdering journalism. While it’s true that every food chain needs scavengers, it turns out that the journalism food chain is swarming with them, and the actual journalists are being starved by not receiving the full benefit of their kills. And the truth? Well, that’s just a innocent bystander accidentally caught up in the feeding frenzy.
It’s is as if Scar and his hyenas emerged triumphant in The Lion King.
Jarvis Landry provided a simple answer to a simple question. When asked what his team was going to do coming out of the bye, Landry answered with what he likely thought was the right type of answer from an athlete: “We’re going to win”.
This is a pretty good athlete non-answer in normal circumstances, and generally better than saying “I dunno, we’ll probably stumble our way to a win or two”. In this case, though, it backfired.
Since people often misunderstand what other people say, Landry’s simple declaration was interpreted as a promise to defeat the undefeated New England Patriots by at least one reporter, and thrown out into that feeding ground for aggregators: Twitter.
That was all it took.
It just takes one person to see the tweet, dream of clicks, and quickly crank out an article and reel the advertising views back in. Other aggregators, if they don’t feed off Twitter, will feed off other aggregators, and the cycle of disinformation begins.
Before you know it, Bill Belichick and the New England media are using the misquote to try to inspire the local franchise, and cynical voices in the national media begin to point and laugh.
Meanwhile, the local media tries to contain the damage:
— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) October 24, 2019
Incredible how so many people, who aren’t even in the room, can take a few words and fabricate a story from it.
— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) October 24, 2019
Stood three feet from Jarvis Landry, who did not guarantee a win over the #Patriots.
He was asked how #Browns will play coming out of the bye and he said, “We’re gonna win.” New England’s team was not mentioned.
This has been twisted into a large non-story, story.
— Tom Withers (@twithersAP) October 24, 2019
Watching #Patriots locker room interviews from earlier today and every player is asked about Jarvis Landry “guaranteeing a #Browns win.” A) He didn’t. B) Blows my mind how confidently that question is being asked by people who likely didn’t even see Landry’s comments. C’mon guys.
— Jon Doss (@JonDoss) October 25, 2019
By the term “aggregator”, I’m referring to people who don’t do the actual work of gathering news, but who instead see it produced elsewhere, quickly write copy, and throw it out there to be monetized by advertising views.
It’s easy to do this, which is why there are a lot of them. Some have become very rich and successful, some of the early entrants have even tried to transition to actual news in a quest for respectability.
The equation for success is rather brutal, however. Since advertising doesn’t bring in a lot of money for one person reading an article (let’s say about a tenth of a cent), there are a couple of ways to make this work and stay in business. But it’s all tied to high volume and low cost.
The first way is to basically pay your people doing the aggregation next to nothing (or nothing at all), keeping costs at close to zero. These people are in many cases fans, or people looking to claw their way up the journalism ladder. Another way is to have a traffic hose in the form of a big partner (e.g., CNN or MSNBC) that is willing to link your stuff on a high-traffic home page. A third is to have a huge (and I mean HUGE) social network following that, again, can be poured over your articles. A fourth is to tailor all your articles to receive great “search engine optimization” (SEO), so it emerges at the top of Google results. Or a combination of the above. I could spend all day pointing out which network or site does which, but these are the basics.
Between keeping costs low and capturing large amounts of clicks, you can eke out a profit and make whoever is at the top of the pyramid wealthy. It’s a volume business usually using cheap or unpaid labor. A lot of people have figured this out, so there are a lot of aggregators out there.
In the meantime, the people who do the work have to fight against the aggregators to squeeze out enough page views to stay employed. Unfortunately, the re-writes happen almost instantly. Hyenas swarm the kill before the lions can take a bite.
So, I collected a large number of links both from the local press and aggregators on this story. I’ve decided I’m going throw all the aggregator links away. I don’t want to send any aggregators who ran with the misinterpreted tweet any of the (admittedly small) traffic they would get from people clicking links in this article.
Suffice it to say that it’s the usual offenders in this case, made worse by the local press in Boston who took the bait and ran with it straight to the Patriots locker room. Embarrassing for online media all the way around.
What made the situation worse are a handful of aggregators who later ran with the “athlete says something stupid” narrative, as if Landry originally declared that they would beat the Patriots for sure, and then did cowardly backtracking when called on it.
That’s not the case at all. While Landry did clarify his comments to make sure they were not misinterpreted, he didn’t originally mean what the aggregators said he did. While the aggregators updated their stories, their insistence on this narrative means an inaccurate picture of the incident was painted for their (unfortunate) readers. Inconvenient facts are, per usual, tossed away. The narrative above all.
The truth is this based on everything I’ve seen and read and heard from people who were there: Landry’s comment was misinterpreted by the media, aggregators who weren’t there ran with it, and then tried to fit it into a “backtracking” narrative.
What a mess. Again the local media has to clean up the litter:
What to do? What to do?
What I would selfishly suggest is that readers stick first to sites that are on the ground and reporting directly from the source. That isn’t even a guarantee in that there are some click-bait hounds in every group, but I will say that if you’re depending on a site that doesn’t have anyone there getting the news directly, you’re doing it wrong.
I’m hoping that our own aggregation is done with an eye to supplementing it with our own material and that our experience in the media business such that we can help spot false narratives and provide facts that otherwise might not have seen the light of day.
Are we successful at this? I’ll go gaze at my navel later. My navel is not interesting to practically anyone.
At any rate, I could write about this sort of stuff all day. If you want to talk about it more, feel free to write me at [email protected] or lecture me in the comments to this article.
Meanwhile, I’ll shake my head at what’s happened to the media and continue to hope that things change.