Howard Owens is a digital media pioneer. He started publishing local news online in 1995 when very few local news outlets had web sites. The header image on the site depicts the film camera he used early in his career and the press pass from his year on the staff of the Carlsbad Journal. For more on Howard's professional background, read his LinkedIn profile.
HowardOwens.com is the personal web site of Howard Owens and covers his range of interests -- political localism and libertarianism, music and personal interests, as well as his professional interests.
Howard is currently publisher of The Batavian and lives in Batavia, N.Y.
- wu ying on Photos from our recent adventures in WNY
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- wu ying on Tracking the progress of Vance Albitz
- Craig Huckerby on Paywalls create opportunities for local news entrepreneurs
- Peter Eirene Chin on How to launch your own local news site in 10 (not so easy) steps
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Daily Archives: February 28, 2009
Aggregation is the Internet term for harvesting information from a variety of sources and repurposing it into a single presentation.
There are four types of aggregation sites:
• Human edited
• Algorithmic selection
• Social bookmarking
• Automatic scraping or ingestion
Almost all forms of aggregation mean acquiring content without paying for it. The best kinds of aggregation add value for the reader.
The Drudge Report, operated by Matt Drudge and one assistant, attracts nearly 7 million viewers per month. NewzJunky.com is run by a single former newspaper employee in Watertown, NY and over the past two years has become the number one online news site for that region of the state, reaching about 67,000 people per month.
These popular aggregation sites do a tremendous job of driving traffic to originating news sources. A link from Drudge can take down servers. Newspaper Web sites within NewzJuny’s coverage area report a handsome surge of traffic based on a NJ link.
Quirky and idiosyncratic, human-edited aggregation sites give users a sense that somebody who is smart, or shares their beliefs, or is just zealous about the news, is out there looking for interesting links.
In the case of Drudge, especially, his audience is very curious about what he’s linking to, how he’s re-writing headlines, what he chooses to feature where. His loyalists try to read the tea leaves to discern what message he’s sending. Some critics have even accused Drudge – because of his choice of links and how he rewrites headlines – of conspiring with political campaigns and Fox News.
Scott Karp notes that Drudge, “a site that sends people away with links,” has the highest engagement of any site on the web.
But the most important difference between the top site and all the other sites, is that this top site — Drudge — has nothing but LINKS. … Drudge beats every original content news site by a two to one margin.
Here’s what ReadWriteWeb says about Drudge:
It sends people away to keep them coming back
There’s actually no content on the Drudge Report. Well, sometimes he will post an email or a memo on his site, but it’s 99% links out to other news sources. His site is designed to send you away to bring you back. The more often you hit his site to go somewhere else the more often you’ll return to go somewhere else again. You visit the Drudge Report more because you leave the Drudge Report more. This is one of the secrets to building traffic: The more you send people away the more they’ll come back.
37Signals has called DrudgeReport.com one of the best designed web sites on the web.
To clarify, my definition of design goes beyond aesthetic qualities and into areas of maintenance, cost, profitability, speed, and purpose. However, I still think that the Drudge Report is an aesthetic masterpiece even though I also consider it ugly. Can good design also be ugly? I think Drudge proves it can.
Some sites – most notably Google News and Techmeme – attempt to mimic human decision-making through computer programming. Such algorithmic programs make computational decisions based on such factors as popularity of a site, how many external sites link to a particular story, and the popularity of the sites embedding those links.
It’s unclear if this approach is a clear winner in news aggregation.
Google News reached 5.6 million people in January, far below Yahoo! News’s 20 million. However, even though Yahoo!’s news audience is three times the size of Google’s, Google is a sends nearly as much traffic to a typical low circulation news site.
Part of Google’s value to both reader and publisher is that the news search engine makes it easy to find headlines around defined search terms (the grouping of related headlines is also useful). Author John Battelle coined the phrase “database of intentions” to describe how people use Google – searchers have an intention to find specific information at defined times. In a news context, when people are looking for coverage of events, they do so with that intention-driven mindset. In that mindset, they are much more likely to click on a relevant link (much as they would click on an AdSense text ad in Google’s organic search). This delivers value to readers and benefits publishers.
The Yahoo! News approach to aggregation, however, more closely satisfies the intention of the headline grazer, the person just looking for a quick glance at what is going on in the world or her home town. The grazer is already in a mindset of “too little time to read too many stories.”
These intention-driven differences likely explains the disparity of click-throughs from Yahoo! News vs. Google News.
Earlier this year, Google launched a localized news service, allowing users to define a headline feed based on zip code. While it would be tempting to compare Google local to Yahoo! local, the two presentations are very different approaches. Google remains a click-away site, while Yahoo!’s primary mission is to be sticky, offering up users many options to remain on the site rather than follow a link.
Digg is the most popular social bookmarking site on the web. In January, Digg.com reached 24 million people.
Generally, social bookmarking involves site members saving links to a database and then allows other members vote on whether the bookmark is worthwhile. Links are then ranked with the most popular ones making its way to the top of the home page.
Top placement on Digg can bring an avalanche of traffic.
Computers can be used to aggregate headlines and links through two methods: Scraping (using a robot server to crawl news web pages) and RSS ingest (grabbing a site’s RSS feed and republishing it).
The most popular automated aggregator is Yahoo! News, which as we discussed earlier, reaches more than 20 million people. Yahoo! uses a combination of site crawling and RSS/XML ingestion (XML ingestion for Consortium member sites) (Also, note, the main Yahoo! News page is compiled by human editors).
While Yahoo! sends newspaper sites a reasonable amount of traffic, as we discussed earlier when comparing Yahoo! News to Google News, Yahoo! appears to refer a mere fraction of its audience to outside sites. For an analysis of why, see the section on algorithmic aggregators.
Another popular automated aggregation site – reaching 11 million people – is Topix. Topix does have human editors in some of the communities it serves; however, it mostly relies on a robot to scrape sites. It then aggregates the headlines geographically, allows people to comment on the headlines and is also trying to break into local classifieds (An interesting side note: a new site, OurTown.com, is trying to do much the same thing by re-aggregating Topix links).
GateHouse Media sites received a minimal amount of referrer traffic, about 1/10th of 1 percent, from Topix before we demanded the company – owned by Tribune, Gannett and McClatchy – stop aggregating our content (which included at the time full republication of our photographs).
Giving your newspaper content away for free online is foolish.
It does indeed cannibalize your circulation.
Qualification: I’m speaking only for local newspapers who’s community focused content is unique and generally valued by only a narrowly defined audience. For news organizations with national or international aspirations, different rules apply.
Here’s the conundrum for local newspapers — giving newspaper content away for free isn’t a successful strategy, charging for it online won’t work, and not using the web to grow your business is suicide.
That makes it seem, then, like newspaper publishers have no option. If they give their content away for free online, they’re helping to kill their print business; if they don’t have a news web site, they risk losing their entire local news franchise (to an online-only start up) and they also abandon the one avenue they have to generate new revenue and grow the business.
What no newspaper publisher has considered, as far as I know, and at least not in a long time, is a third way. Rather than giving away content, or charge for it or not even having a web site, the third way is create an entirely different web operation.
Let me state the obvious: The web is not print. Content publishers online require a completely different mindset from print journalists. The people who produce content for the web should not be the people who produce content for print. (Not that print people aren’t smart enough to learn web publishing — they certainly are, but they’re too concentrated on print when that’s their primary livelihood).
An online news site needs to comply with the following criteria:
- Continuously updated
- Use of multimedia
- Personal-voice writing
- Community building
- User customization
- Web strategy designed around pull rather than push
- A separate, online-only sales staff with no constraints
There’s a lot of money to be made for local news sites if they can build strong, loyal online audiences and generate a buzz among readers and advertisers about what they’re doing, but unless and until newspaper publishers start seeing more clearly that the web is not print, their local news franchises are likely doomed.
When I look at the names of the people who have already registered for the new HowardOwens.com, I see nothing but a list of friends.
And that’s part of what I want for the resurrected HowardOwens.com. I want this to be a site where people feel safe to discuss whatever issue I happen to introduce in a blog post.
I’m done with trolls.
I’m done with anonymous posters.
On a web site where the expectation is we attract an audience of mature, professional adults, the notion that all participants contribute under the byline of his or her real name shouldn’t seem obscene or unexpected.
As a matter of ethics, I believe anybody in the information business should never, under any circumstances, hide behind a pseudonym.
The real name policy was mocked in comments on Dan Kennedy’s blog. I figure such derisive remarks come from people who somehow just managed to graduate from their AOL account 18 months ago. I’ve been running online communities for well more than a decade. I’ve learned a few things. As arrogant as it sounds, I’m not taking lessons from neophytes.
Of course, the question naturally arises: How will I enforce a real name policy? And my only answer is, as best I can.
Basically, if you’re a troll, you won’t last long on my new site. If you engage in personal attacks against me or other people leaving comments on the site, you will be blocked.
Fake names are generally pretty easy to detect, and since it’s my site, I don’t need proof. I only need suspicion.
Does that mean I’ll delete comments just because a person disagrees with me? Of course not. I happen to love a good discussion over differing views. But I know it’s also possible to disagree, as they say, without being disagreeable.
Basically, my expectation and what I intend to do enforce as best I an, is that discussions on howardowens.com stick to issues and aim at being instructive.
If my draconian rules mean fewer people will comment, I’m willing to live with that.
And if you think you should be able to spout off whatever bullshit you please without attaching your real name to your opinions, then howardowens.com isn’t the place for you, and I don’t care if you don’t like it. There’s always blogger.com where any person can rant to his chickenshit anonymous heart’s content.
Ethical people, honest people, always use their real names.
Yes, I’m no longer employed by GateHouse Media.
But I do have a big job ahead of me: running The Batavian.
I’m grateful to Mike Reed, CEO, Kirk Davis, COO and my boss Bill Blevins for all of the opportunities afford to me by GateHouse. I learned much, grew much and was given the freedom to do many interesting and worthwhile things.
I’m also very excited the opportunity with The Batavian.