NYT Editor Slams Aggregators, Huffington, ‘American Idol’-ization of News

In his first column for revamped New York Times magazine, Bill Keller sounds off on “orgy of self-reference”

Last Updated: March 10, 2011 @ 2:55 PM

New York Times editor Bill Keller has delivered his first column for the revamped New York Times magazine.

And for the "flocks of media oxpeckers who ride the backs of pachyderms, feeding on ticks," and the "coterie of learned analysts who meditate on the meta of media," as Keller calls them, it's a doozy.

Keller begins his essay — out this weekend but online now — by lamenting his own "celebrity" status (you're the editor of the New York Times, Bill!) and the accompanying "'American Idol'-ization of news."

"Some once-serious news outlets give pride of place not to stories they think important but to stories that are “trending” on Twitter," Keller writes.

Most notably, however, Keller saves most of the vitriol for a fellow media celebrity, Arianna Huffington, and the news "aggregation" culture she's helped cultivate.

And since this column is in the business of both "meditating on the meta of media" and aggregating media news with "learned" analysis, might as well aggregate that part of Keller's piece:

“Aggregation” can mean smart people sharing their reading lists, plugging one another into the bounty of the information universe. It kind of describes what I do as an editor. But too often it amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.

The queen of aggregation is, of course, Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come. How great is Huffington’s instinctive genius for aggregation? I once sat beside her on a panel in Los Angeles (on — what else? — The Future of Journalism). I had come prepared with a couple of memorized riffs on media topics, which I duly presented. Afterward we sat down for a joint interview with a local reporter. A moment later I heard one of my riffs issuing verbatim from the mouth of Ms. Huffington. I felt so … aggregated.

Keller also has some choice words for AOL's $315 million purchase of Huffington's Post:

Last month, when AOL bought The Huffington Post for $315 million, it was portrayed as a sign that AOL is moving into the business of creating stuff — what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call “content.” Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company’s announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.

Keller, of course, is not bitter at all about Huffington's poaching of the Times' Peter Goodman, national economic correspondent and business writer, last fall to edit her suddenly valuable aggregation operation. Not. At. All.

And since smart media analysts aggregate other smart media analysts' thoughts on media aggregation, let's do some of that, too.

>> Adam Penenberg, NYU professor: "Bill Keller seems quite thin-skinned. Attack the economics of aggregation from NYT POV, that's fair. But this is needlessly churlish."

>> Hamilton Nolan, Gawker: "Bill Keller writes provocative media column from 1997."

>> Alex Alvarez, Mediaite: "His comparison of aggregation to piracy in Somalia should tell you all you need to know about Keller’s thoughts on the matter."

>> Jarvis, who Keller called out in his essay: "Odd column. [Keller] tries to be ironic about his power, then dismisses the value of [the Huffington Post] (1/3 of NYT's)."