美国互联网第一大报《赫芬顿邮报》（The Huffington Post）的业务很大程度上依赖于综合和汇编他人采写的新闻报道。不过本周一，该报的一名科技记者却因为汇总他人撰写的报道而受到了停薪留职的处分。就在同一天，该报还推出了新的“《赫芬顿邮报》名人版”和“《赫芬顿邮报》文化版”页面。
当然，“严肃”不“严肃”也是件仁者见仁的事。当年“疫苗导致自闭症”的假新闻轰动一时，《赫邮》就是这条假新闻的主要传播渠道之一（在现在看来，这条假新闻不啻于一个疯狂的阴谋论。）几年前，《赫邮》还有一个半正式的专栏，由小罗伯特•肯尼迪（当然，策划“疫苗导致自闭症”报道的人里也有他）和布兰登•德梅勒主笔，专栏的名字就叫：“发掘本周主流媒体遗漏了的新闻”（Unearthed: News of the Week the Mainstream Media Forgot to Report）。只不过这个专栏里的每一则新闻都可以链接到某份主流媒体的报道，因此有些自打嘴巴的嫌疑。
网络小报Gawker网的瑞安•泰特在本周二指出，这种现象并不稀奇，而且他还举出了另外几个类似的例子，其中的几起案例就发生在最近。不过泰特忽略了一件事，那就是随着《赫邮》朝着更加原创化的方向发展，抄袭的现象正变得越来越罕见。而且泰特也没有提到另一个事实——《赫邮》并不是唯一一家这样干的美国媒体。【例如就在本周一，《好莱坞报道》杂志（Hollywood Reporter）刊载了一篇关于歌星布鲁斯•斯普林斯汀的文章，这篇文章就是大段摘抄了《纽约时报》（New York Times）的一篇文章，有好几处还直接引用了原文的直接引语。】
The Huffington Post, which built its business largely by aggregating and summarizing news stories reported and written by others, on Monday suspended a young technology writer for aggregating and summarizing a story written by someone else. Also on Monday, HuffPo unveiled its new HuffPost Celebrity and HuffPost Culture pages.
Together, the two events highlight the changes the Huffington Post is undergoing: it's transitioning away from aggregation (cheap) and toward original reporting (expensive), which it is financing, in part, with fluff.
That's just what newspapers used to do. Sadly, though, most newspapers, especially troubled regional papers, can't replicate the model because it only works at scale. Margins at HuffPo, now owned by AOL (AOL), are thin, as they are all over the Web, and the only way the site can make enough money to pay all its new reporters (cheap) and editors (expensive) is by selling ads against massive traffic volume.
For all the criticism HuffPo and its founder Arianna Huffington take for being lightweight and shallow, the site seems to genuinely want to take on serious issues in a serious way (along with being lightweight and shallow elsewhere). As media consultant Clay Shirky pointed out last week in a widely circulated blog post, most people don't care very much about serious issues, so it's hard to draw the amount of traffic necessary to finance coverage of them if that's all you have.
Shirky also noted how the newspaper business thrived for decades because it sold its products in a bundle. Most people were interested in sports, gossip, entertainment features, comics, classified ads, coupons and the like; relatively few were interested in what was supposedly the main product: news. The other stuff – the stuff people actually cared about – financed coverage of serious news, something that we need whether or not many people actually want to read it. The Web is unbundled by its nature (you can get classifieds at Craiglist, sports at ESPN.com, and celeb gossip at TMZ.com), forcing news, in most cases, to make it on its own.
But Huffington Post is, in a way, putting the bundle back together for the Web. There is a reason the site calls itself "The Internet Newspaper." By churning out loads of lowbrow celebrity gossip and the like, HuffPo hopes to be able to draw the traffic necessary to finance more serious content. (HuffPo did not respond to an offer to comment for this article.) The serious stuff, in turn, helps give the site cachet. Newspapers wouldn't have done nearly so well if they contained no news.
Of course, "serious" is in the eye of the beholder. HuffPo has been a major channel for spreading the proven-false idea that vaccines cause autism (a notion that, at this point, is tantamount to a lunatic conspiracy theory). A few years back it ran a semi-regular column by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (not coincidentally, one of the vaccine-autism mongers) and Brendan DeMelle called "Unearthed: News of the Week the Mainstream Media Forgot to Report," in which nearly every item was linked to a mainstream media report, somewhat undermining the premise.
But just as HuffPo has been winding down its aggregation, it also has been slowly getting more serious in its coverage of hard news events. Its news, business and tech channels could be described as at least middlebrow, for example. At the same time, they are uneven, as the incident on Monday revealed.
The post for which reporter Amy Lee was suspended consisted "a short but thorough paraphrasing/rewriting" of a post written by AdAge.com's Simon Dumenco, Dumenco himself complained. Lee didn't add anything or provide any analysis or anything other than a summary of someone else's work.
Gawker's Ryan Tate observed on Tuesday that this isn't novel, and he provided a few examples of similar posts by other writers – some of them recent. What he didn't say was that such "overaggregation" is becoming more and more rare at HuffPo as it transitions into producing more original, staff-written content. He also didn't mention that HuffPo is far from alone in doing this. (On Monday for example, The Hollywood Reporter published a long summary/paraphrase of a New York Times article about Bruce Springsteen, complete with several quotes from the original story's sources.)
The only question is whether HuffPo and its new corporate owner, AOL, can afford that transition. It's paying high salaries to many of its new hires (several of whom it poached from the likes of The New York Times and the BBC), but it tends to hire young, inexperienced writers who are expected to churn out as much content as possible to help achieve the massive scale HuffPo needs to succeed.
It might take a lot of celebrity fluff to make that happen. Welcome to the newspaper of the 21st century.