Creator or Aggregator

Scott Karp has a nice summary of the creator vs. aggregator split going on in the media industry right now.

The real divide now emerging is between companies that create original content and companies that create platforms for aggregating and distributing that content. Newspapers embody the old media world where content creation, aggregation, and distribution were inextricably linked. But the digital media revolution has made it possible to separate these functions.

He goes on to discuss how content creation is no longer easily scalable, while aggregation and distribution is.

Content creation is asymptotically approaching commodity status, while platforms that can effectively aggregate content and allocate scarce consumer attention can unlock immense value in the new media marketplace.

While I don’t think things are quite so dire for content creators, clearly all of the attention is on the platforms. Thinking about the immense value waiting to be unlocked, I am left to wonder exactly what it is that I want from an aggregator.

I want information in at least three areas – on my specific interests (e.g. a hobby or sport), on my general interests (e.g. current events), and on interests I don’t really know I have (e.g. an interesting story on chemistry). And, I also want to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff (of course!). I can find information on specific interests because I’m willing to put in the time searching, there probably aren’t that many sources available, and I’m able to recognize quality and expertise well on my own. For my general and new interests, however, I need some help.

There are a lot of aggregation platforms available, but I need to know what I want to aggregate. I don’t have the time to search through thousands (millions?) of information sources to discover the best ones. Platforms like Digg are interesting, but haven’t shown themselves to be particularly useful outside of the Digg white male tech geek demographic. What I need are information curators. Someone whose judgment I trust to help me know what’s important each day and where the quality content is on that news. What! I can’t choose for myself what’s important? Heresy, you say? Well, of course I can choose, but first I need to know what is happening – what my choices are. For this reason I usually subscribe to an AP feed on my home page. It’s not that I trust the AP so much, but they work well as a proxy until I find just the right curator.

Note also that the AP content is created by professionals, those guys who are supposed to be dinosaurs (unless, of course, they are covering local news). Yes, we still need professionals because amateurs don’t have the time or the means to break news. I define a professional, by the way, as anyone who makes a living from generating content, not just someone who works for a traditional media organization.

As for content becoming a commodity (well, not quite, Scott did say “asymptotically approaching”), I think that overstates the case. Well written (or produced), informed work will always be in demand. Again, I just need a way to distinguish the wheat from the chaff without reading through each source myself. I don’t have the time to do that.

It’s the curator function that I think will unlock real value on the aggregator side. Newspapers would argue that they provide that, but really they just signal a certain level of quality. By opening up their pages to more comments and reader blogs and stories, they aren’t necessarily curating, they’re just distributing. I think that the traditional media company to solve this problem will have found the successful model.

It’s also interesting to view industries other than publishing through the lense of the content/aggregation split. Cable operators have actually been moving in the opposite direction, trying to bring content creation together with aggregation and distribution. Although they began as pure distributors, they now own channels and produce their own content (e.g. Comcast SportsNet). Is there some reason to believe the cable/video industry is different than publishing? I’m not sure there is. The split is no doubt occurring more slowly because producing a video is still more technically difficult, and expensive, than writing, but those barriers are falling. Cable operators would do well to watch the progress of the publishing industry to avoid making similar mistakes.

I wonder what other industries can also learn from the content split?