When Fighting Aggregators, It Helps to Know How They Work

Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch

In the history of business conflicts, no one ever triumphed by whining about unfairness. But Rupert Murdoch and Sharon Waxman seem to think they can be the first.

Outwardly, the two don't have much in common. Murdoch, of course, is the 79-year-old chairman of News Corp., the global news and entertainment empire. Waxman is the 40-something former New York Times reporter behind The Wrap, a small but fast-growing website about show business and media.

But Murdoch and Waxman do have a common enemy: websites that make money by indexing and summarizing the news their companies produce. For Murdoch, the chief bogeyman is Google; for Waxman, it's Newser.com, a three-year-old aggregator run by another former journalist, Michael Wolff.

Murdoch Takes a Stand

It's only been a few weeks since Murdoch took a beating in this space for talking about the ecology of the Internet as though he understands it when he clearly doesn't, and the mogul hasn't learned a thing in the time since. He made that clear on Wednesday in an interview at the National Press Club, where he vowed to "stop people like Google or Microsoft or whoever from taking our stories for nothing."

Just what he meant by that is anyone's guess. At one point, he said, "If you go to Google News and you see stories and it says Wall Street Journal, and you tap on it, and you suddenly get the story as in The Wall Street Journal, and it's for free. And they take it for nothing." He contrasted that with the state of affairs he would like to see: "We'd be very happy if they'd just publish our headline and a sentence or two and that's it."

In fact, this is exactly what you'll find on Google News. In fact, the first Journal story I searched appears there as a headline and only part of a sentence:

Admittedly, if you click the link, it does take you to a full version of the story -- but the story is hosted on the Journal's website -- where the Journal can sell advertising around it -- and not on Google.

And even this arrangement exists only with the Journal's blessing. Murdoch understands this, almost. Search engines won't "take" newspaper content "if you call them up -- you hardly need to write them a letter." This is presumably his charmingly mid-20th-century way of saying that any website can block its content from Google and other search engines with a very simple piece of computer code.

Waxman Send a Letter

So that's Murdoch. He's clueless. Waxman seems generally more with it, and she has a legitimate beef: Newser is little more than a collection of news stories from other outlets, condensed into brief summaries. Waxman is particularly incensed that Newser's summaries tend to include all or most of the information from the source article while obscuring or in some cases entirely omitting any link to that source. The Wrap has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Newser warning it to quit lifting its content in this way.

A lot of people in journalism would cheer if Waxman were successful at scaring Wolff into playing nice. And maybe the approbation of her peers is really what she was after, because there's no way she'll get Newser to back down without more leverage. In her letter, she accuses Newser of "free-rid[ing] on The Wrap's sweat of the brow" and of conduct that "constitutes unfair competition and violates certain deceptive trade practices statutes." The charge of free-riding is absolutely merited. The other stuff is a reach. Unless the definition of copyright is expanded to cover information rather than just the language in which that information is published -- and I've said I think that idea could have dangerous unintended consequences -- what Newser and sites like it do will remain hard to challenge on legal grounds.

That doesn't make it right, or good. Defending his methods, Wolff writes that the value of a news story lies not in the raw facts but in "the style and efficiency with which they are presented." By that measure, Newser is only half successful: It stories are efficient but totally without style. There's none of the wit you get from, say, The Week -- another, superior outlet that lives to aggregate.

It's understandable that old-school newspaper people like Murdoch and Waxman would feel angry and victimized by aggregators, even if the big ones (which Newser is not) do send plenty of valuable traffic to their sites. But they'd do well to set their feelings aside. Nursing a righteous grudge may feel nice, but it doesn't make for the clearest vision.