Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Arianna Huffington To Bill Keller: Who You Calling "Oxpecker"?

Earlier today Bill Keller hurled some invective against Web aggregators in general and Arianna Huffington in particular.

It’s a great, punchy read!  But if you’re in a hurry:

  • The New York Times’ executive editor calls media commentators and media recyclers “oxpeckers who ride the backs of pachyderms, feeding on ticks.”
  • He compares aggregators to pirates, then says that AOL’s $315 million purchase of Huffington Post has been poorly described: “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.”
  • He says that Huffington herself “aggregated” his own words and passed them off as her own.

Here’s Huffington’s response, which she’s going to post on her own site shortly:

Bill Keller Accuses Me of “Aggregating” an Idea He Had Actually “Aggregated” From Me

Perhaps unsettled by the fact that, when combined, The Huffington Post and AOL News have over 70 percent more unique visitors than the New York Times, and that HuffPost/AOL News’ combined page views in January 2011 were double the page views of the Times (1.5 billion vs. 750 million), New York Times executive editor Bill Keller decided to unleash an exceptionally misinformed attack on HuffPost in a column released today and slated for this weekend’s NYT Magazine.

After opening his piece by patting himself on the back so hard I’d be surprised if he didn’t crack a rib (it seems everyone — even Woody Allen and those folks on Twitter — thinks he’s super “powerful” and “influential”!), Keller turned to the putative subject of his column: “the ‘American Idol’-ization of news” and the evils of “aggregation.” Hearkening back to the glory years when Rupert Murdoch and his minions labeled sites that aggregate the news “parasites,” “content kleptomaniacs,” “vampires,” and “tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet” (the news industry equivalent of “your mama wears army boots!” although, not quite as persuasive), Keller says of aggregation: “In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediashpere, it is a respected business model.”

He then describes HuffPost’s offerings as nothing more than “celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications.”

I wonder what site he’s been looking at. Not ours, as even a casual look at HuffPost will show. Even before we merged with AOL, HuffPost had 148 full-time editors, writers, and reporters engaged in the serious, old-fashioned work of traditional journalism. As long ago as 2009, Frank Rich praised the work of our reporters in his column. Paul Krugman more recently singled out the work of our lead finance writer. Columbia Journalism Review has credited our work for advancing the public’s understanding of the national foreclosure crisis, and a pair of our Washington reporters recently received a major journalism prize. Matthew Yglesias, Felix Salmon, Catherine Rampell, are among the many others who have cited the work of our reporters. Did Keller not notice that?

And did he not notice that he lost one of his top business reporters, Peter Goodman, to The Huffington Post — despite his best efforts to keep him? Indeed, on the very day that Keller’s column began circulating, we published a piece Goodman edited, a 4,000-word investigation of a for-profit college by Goodman’s first hire, Chris Kirkham, a former Washington Post intern. Did he think he came over to aggregate adorable kitten videos? And was he too busy scanning all those lists of “most powerful people” he’s on to notice that he also lost one of his top editors, Tim O’Brien, to us?

Even so, if those were the only charges he’d leveled, I wouldn’t have bothered responding. As they say on those TV lawyer shows, “Asked and answered.”

But then Keller went much further, accusing me of “aggregating” his very thoughts! To wit:

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.

That’s quite the claim to make, Bill, especially without offering a single specific. Luckily, I remembered the panel and the subsequent radio interview very well, and quickly found transcripts of both. So what was it that left Keller feeling “so… aggregated”?

During the panel, sponsored by the Milken Institute, and held on April 28, 2010, Keller said the following:

But what I think will happen, and you can already start to see it, is there’s a little bit of a convergence going on. We’ve talked a lot about how some of the mainstream organizations we represent are adapting the tools and more important, the kind of culture and psychology, of a more open media world. I think it’s also true that a lot of the alternatives — the startups — are beginning to see the need for discipline, resources, standards.

A bit later, during the joint radio interview we did with Patt Morrison, I said:

Well, I think there is a convergence happening. There was a big debate over the last few years about whether the newspapers will survive, whether the future is going to be only online. And I think we are realizing now, increasingly, that online, purely online news operations like The Huffington Post are more and more adopting the most traditional, basic tenets of journalism. Accuracy, fairness, fact-checking, reporters, more and more editors, and mainstream traditional operations like the New York Times or NPR are adopting more and more of the digital tools that can bring in the community to make it part of the creation of journalism, through citizen journalism, through reports from the ground, through video, through Twitter feeds, through all the new media available to us.

The trouble for Keller is that this viewpoint, right down to the use of the word “convergence,” is one I had been expressing to describe the changes happening in the media for years.

For instance, in May 2008, two years before the Milken panel, I told the Star Tribune, “I think that what we are seeing is a kind of convergence of the mainstream media doing more and more online, and those of us in online media and the blogosphere doing more and more reporting, along with citizen-journalism projects.”

In November 2008, 17 months before the panel, speaking of the media’s coverage of the ’08 race, I told Reuters, “There’s this real convergence, where basically you found that the best and most accurate rose to the top, whether it originated from Time magazine or from Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com, which did not exist before the election.”

And in January 2010, three months before Bill Keller’s “memorized riff” on convergence, I told Canada’s CTV, “And then we can have a hybrid future where there is a convergence between old media and new media. It’s not an either/or world.”

Indeed, as far back as March 2007, over three years before the Milken panel, I wrote a post outlining my take on what was happening in the media world: “Those papers that wake up in time will become a journalistic hybrid combining the best aspects of traditional print newspapers with the best of what the Web brings to the table.”

So who was it, Bill, who was “aggregating” someone else’s ideas?

Keller’s attack is as lame as it is laughable. I wonder if that Hollywood screenwriter who Keller giddily tells us has purchased an option on his life-rights will include this scintillating episode in his movie?

In any case, this whole thing has left me feeling, to coin a phrase, “so… aggregated.”

Okay, back to the merger.

Ok, NYT: Your turn!


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