"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."
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
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
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."
It's all certainly a step forward for efficiency. But on the flip side, aggregators--especially community-powered ones--can open up a new can of worms when it comes to reputability. Digg users have, on occasion, "dugg" a story to the front page only to realize that it contained inaccurate content or was intended as a prank in the first place.
Then there's the copyright issue. Link to something that's arguably (or actually) illegal, asin the HD DVD crack code debacle a few months ago, and the parent site could find itself in hot water. Plus, aggregation services are treading a fine line if they use any kind of content from another source other than a simple link; reprint even a few paragraphs and the site might fall into the category of a .
For NowPublic, which allows users to create their own news stories as well as contribute external links, photos and videos, this is a particularly crucial point. Brody, however, said that the community keeps it in check, Wikipedia-style. "We tend to catch everything very, very quickly," Brody said. "If it's illegal, it comes off. If it's copyright infringement, if it's defamatory...our community does a really good job of flagging that to our attention."
But perhaps the biggest problem with the growing phenomenon of the aggregator model is the fact that it could grow outdated as technology advances make personalization increasingly easy. The just-launched Newser, for example, uses a combination of editorial picking and choosing and an algorithmic engine to amass the links on its front page. Like Daylife, it's pretty. But the currently simple formats of personal RSS feed readers could easily take a turn for the aesthetically pleasing--something we're already seeing as more and more companies roll out widget-friendly "personalized home pages"--and render obsolete any aggregator that's not "customizable" enough for the increasingly all-about-me Web.
Not so long ago, the only way to customize online news would be to enter your ZIP code for some local headlines and nearby weather forecasts. That's already changed enormously, and it's still evolving. The creators of aggregation sites claim to understand that the push for customization is only going to grow stronger, and that they aim to be ready for it.
"The truth is, for the vast number of people under 35, their physical existence is becoming a smaller and smaller part of their lives," Brody said. "What we're moving to is this era of news where the 'hyperpersonal' is much more relevant, because it encompasses 'local' but it encompasses so much more. It's like a solar system around yourself."
It's still, understandably, a work in progress.
"(We want) to figure out how we turn news into your own personal bumper sticker or your own rock tour shirt that you wore in high school," Brody added. "When you wore that Metallica T-shirt, it was a statement about you."