Why blocking news aggregators is dumb and won’t work

DALLAS - MAY 1:  Owner of the Dallas Mavericks...
Mark Cuban: This is your media on crack. Any questions?
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The apparent crack epidemic sweeping the executive suites of media organizations across the U.S. has claimed another victim.

Mark Cuban loves the news business. Over the years he’s done and said some smart things in media. But on his blog a few days ago, he took a big ol’ nose dive straight into the shallow end of the pool.

In his Aug. 8 post, My Advice to Fox & MySpace on Selling Content – Yes You Can, Cuban exhorted news sites to start blocking access to links to their content coming from aggregators. So, for instance, someone might encounter a Newser summary of a USA Today story — but if USA Today blocked inbound links from Newser, someone who wanted to learn more from the full story would click the link and go nowhere.

Here’s the key point for news orgs to grasp: The audience would NOT view Newser as the problem there. Newser has already provided value with the story summary — and they were trying to provide the audience with even more value through a direct link to the full story.

Instead, the news organization would be spoiling its own reputation by presenting itself as an obstacle. The blocked aggregator link in effect says “We don’t want your attention unless you come to us our way, even though we’re not providing the kind of easy summary through aggregators that obviously meets your needs and attracts your interest.”

To which the audience would more likely respond, “Yeah, screw you too. I’ll take my eyeballs elsewhere, thanks.”

Not exactly good for the news business.

The sad and scary thing about Cuban’s post is that a lot of news execs will probably listen to Cuban right now, and maybe even follow his advice, because they’re scared and he’s playing to their fears, prejudices, and weaknesses. It’ll be sad to watch.

Perhaps the one bright spot in this mess is that it may be technically simple to get around aggregator link blocking…

Matt Nelson commented shortly after Cuban’s post hit the web:

“The day after the news providers start blocking aggregators is the day a browser plugin is published to hide or spoof the referring site. I would bet that the next major release of Firefox and Chrome would then incorporate it by default, with IE avoiding it until the loss of market forced them to relent.”

I’m not a web developer, but I just had a quick chat with a web developer I know. He confirmed that there are multiple technical options to get around blocked links — from browser plugins to proxy servers. This kind of subversion might reduce the significant harm news orgs would be inflicting upon themselves by blocking aggregator links.

But more likely, the more news orgs put obstacles between people and their news, the more likely it is that more open competitors will win out. As commenter Rob Levin noted:

“Why is this any different from free vs. paid radio? There is a fundamental disconnect in trying to make a business out of something where the product is not scarce.”

Michael Wolff, founder of Newser (a popular news aggregator that Cuban singled out for attack) published a pointed retort to Cuban. Wolff made an excellent point about giving today’s audience what they want, rather than trying to force them to surmount various obstacles just to get the kind of news that news organizations think they should want:

“People who go to aggregator sites don’t really click through to the original story. But he misses the profound and game-changing aspect of that fact: They don’t want to read the original story. Habits have changed on the Internet, where information comes faster and from many more sources. Hence, news needs to be short and it needs to be aggregated, which is precisely what brand-specific news sites lack: News from diverse outlets that can be consumed quickly. Here’s the rub: People don’t want news (there’s too much of that), they want aggregation (ie, efficiency and ease), which there isn’t enough of. Oh, yes, and free.”

I don’t agree with Wolff that “people don’t want news” — I think they do, as long as it’s relevant and (increasingly) efficient. That means providing summaries, and being available through aggregators.

As I noted earlier today (see Washington Post: Go Gawker Yourself), news organizations probably have more to gain by creating their own summaries and aggregators than by railing against the people who spotted this opportunity first. Or, if they’re just not up to that challenge, they could actively partner with aggregators, bloggers, and entertaining “newsmockers” like Gawker and The Daily Show to make the relationship more mutually beneficial.

Sigh…  If only staging a mass intervention for this crack epidemic would work. As Molly Ivins wrote in 2006:

“I don’t so much mind that newspapers are dying — it’s watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.”

But at least not everyone’s on the pipe. If you want to see a genuine bright spot, read this Aug. 4 commentary by Reuters president Chris Ahearne: Why I believe in the Link Economy. He wrote:

“I believe in the link economy. Please feel free to link to our stories — it adds value to all producers of content. I believe you should play fair and encourage your readers to read-around to what others are producing if you use it and find it interesting. …Let’s stop whining and start having real conversations across party lines.

“…Our news ecosystem is evolving and learning how it can be open, diverse, inclusive and effective. With all the new tools and capabilities we should be entering a new golden age of journalism — call it journalism 3.0.”

If you like what Ahearne had to say (or if you don’t) be sure to tell him on Twitter.

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2 thoughts on Why blocking news aggregators is dumb and won’t work

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