The curator’s dilemma

Trying to figure out whether the Huffington Post is man or machine


Curation versus aggregation. One is done by humans, one is done by algorithms. So what do you call the Huffington Post?

It’s curation, says Max Linsky of Longform, a curator of long-form journalism. HuffPo has real-life editors that decide what stories from around the web to repost, thus it’s curation.

No, it’s aggregation, says Maria Popova, a curator of cool stuff at Brainpickings. It’s not based on editor’s values or any judgement of what should matter, but what will get traffic and make money.

David Carr, my alt-weekly hero and New York Times media reporter, doesn’t necessarily have a position on the above. He just wants to know where the advertising money is going.

And so we have an entertaining media panel at SXSWi. Four people who make beautiful, ad-free curation sites and apps (also present but less vocal was Mia Quagliarello of Flipboard and Noah Briar of Percolate), and Carr, a traditional broadsheet journalist.

Carr spent most his time on the panel trying to figure out how all five of them could live in harmony. He said the curation model, as is, is unsustainable. Curators like Flipboard strip newspapers and magazines of ads and offer the stylized content for free, while those newspapers and magazines rely on ads to produce the content.

If there are no ads, then there is no content, since ads pay for content. If there is no content, there is no Flipboard, since Flipboard takes content from ad-driven media. Basically, curation will bankrupt the entire system.

So Popova created the Curator’s Code, and launched it at this festival. It is a code of conduct that seeks to honor discovery with beautiful symbols.

It’s an innovative way to attribute content. There are two symbols to give credit, one for direct discovery (“via”) and one for inspiration (“hat tip”).

The system does not, however, solve the problem of paying for content. Popova and Carr seemed to think that would come from readers – both their respective outlets solicit for reader payment. Linsky seemed to think it was on the media’s side, to come up with a better model to compete with curators.

The answer, in my mind, was neither. And I came up with the solution during the talk.

There is a way for Carr to get paid for the journalism he does, for the curators to continue to take content and display it more beautifully and for readers not to have to pay for what they previously got free. It comes down to advertisers.

Advertisers are the ones with the resources to solve this problem. They should make ads that don’t need to be stripped away by Flipboard or anyone else. Ads that engage readers as much as the content does.

For a change, put the onus not on the writers, curators, readers or editors, but on the advertisers. Make better ads.

Easy, right? Problem solved.

The question remains, though, what is the Huffington Post doing?

joshuae@nowtoronto.com | @joshuaerrett

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