All the news that's fit to link

The concept of a page full of links is nothing new, but the Web is increasingly taking note of news aggregators as a way to make some sense of a chaotic media landscape.

If you ask new-media pundit Jeff Jarvis, the humble hyperlink ought to be counted high in the ranks of digital-age phenomena that have transformed the face of news reporting and consumption.

"The hyperlink has changed everything," asserted Jarvis, who runs media criticism site BuzzMachine and political blog PrezVid. Citing the motto "do what you do best, and link to the rest," he said that news outlets can achieve new levels of efficiency through the ability to direct readers to click elsewhere for more information. In one sense, it's the 21st-century equivalent of a newspaper running an Associated Press or Reuters wire story instead of assigning one of its own reporters to the task. On the other hand, the hyperlink is the foundation behind a phenomenon that's purely Web 2.0: the news aggregator.

Jarvis, a veteran of print media, has placed a considerable stake in aggregation as the future of news: He's an investor and partner in start-up Daylife, which crawls the Web for news topics and arranges and categorizes them according to content and coverage--often through interesting visualizations. "You become wiser than the sum of your parts," Jarvis said of Daylife's collect-everything strategy. "You can take that wisdom of the crowd of editors and put it in one place, and that becomes valuable."

"You can take that wisdom of the crowd of editors and put it in one place, and that becomes valuable."
--Jeff Jarvis, partner and investor, Daylife

It's not a new trend. Google News, arguably the best-known site that collects links to other news headlines around the Web, debuted in beta in 2002. Editor-picked aggregator The Huffington Post launched more than two years ago. But clearly, this mode of current events delivery is still developing, as just this week saw the public launch of Newser and a $10 million financing round for user-contributed news community NowPublic. Often, aggregators' methodologies are very different: some are automated by RSS feeds (like OriginalSignal) or algorithms; some have links that are hand-picked by a team of editors; and others (like NowPublic or Digg) rely entirely on user contributions of headlines, multimedia and commentary.

But whether they operate on algorithms, staff editors or "crowdsourcing," aggregators are a way to give some order to an increasingly jumbled media landscape where, quite literally, any one Web user can be a source of--or at least relay--news.

Over the past few years, the once-stark division between "mainstream" and "citizen" media has been smudged considerably. Think about the 2004 presidential election, when bloggers were talked about as though they were a newly discovered species from the most unexplored corner of some Sumatran jungle. Now, mainstream news outlets have famously been launching blogs (or purchasing existing ones, as Discovery Communications recently did with eco-blog TreeHugger.com), incorporating RSS feeds into their Web properties, and calling on local readers to contribute to and enhance their offerings.

On the other end of the spectrum, once-guerrilla bloggers are scampering up the journalistic ladder, scoring press credentials previously reserved for the likes of national newspapers and earning A-list name recognition or even posh titles at big media's biggest strongholds--take, for example, original Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox's new job as Time magazine's Washington correspondent.

With the news reporting environment essentially one big gray area, hyperlink-based news aggregation creates a sort of common denominator. A link on the Top 10 of Digg, after all, is a link regardless of whether it came from the International Herald Tribune or a post on a MySpace.com profile blog--if Digg's large and dedicated user base deems it worthy of several thousand thumbs-up, it gets exposure. Fellow aggregation community Fark.com, likewise, gives equal billing to news stories from international publications and obscure local newspapers' Web sites, provided they fit the site's criteria of outlandish and bizarre.

Sites like NowPublic, on the other hand, are aggregations of collaborators in addition to links. Co-founder Len Brody explained that it's a way to pull together the eyes and ears of citizens whose photos, videos and commentary can contribute to breaking stories on a level that mainstream news organizations can't.

"What every person in the street can do is be a witness," Brody said. "What we do is amalgamate all of that and act as this sort of early warning network for journalists and readers to see breaking coverage."

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