There was a big row today as a set of high-profile news publications (including the Washington Post, AP, Time and so on) sent a cease-and-desist letter to Zite, a news-personalization iPad app (the letter is detailed in paidContent and AllThingsD). The cause? Zite was taking the original content (often, the entire article) and reflowing it inside their own interface, stripping out all the ads, internal links and so on. To be honest, once I saw the way content was being presented in Zite back when it launched, I was sure that this was going soon, and here’s why:
Throughout the years of news aggregation on the web, a unspoken set of rules has been formed that the content-owners tolerate:
- Keep the excerpt short
- Always link to the original article
- Keep photography minimal – only thumbnails
Anything else brought swift action from the lawyers of news agencies and major news sites, especially if you achieved any significant degree of popularity, as Google found out with the many suits against Google News by AP, Reuters and AFP.
These rules, however, are now being gradually challenged by a new breed of news aggregators, especially on the iPad – we can look at Flipboard, as, arguably, the most visible example:
- The excerpt Flipboard presents is often a full page from the text
- The photography is used in full resolution, and featured prominently in the app
However, the main rule, which Zite broke (and got subsequently wrist-slapped), of leading the user to the original page still remains. News360 goes even further – our app opens the original page in a frame, so the content owner gets a pageview any time a user opens an article. The value of this pageview can be debated, since if the user doesn’t expand the frame, the ads are never viewed and the page isn’t interacted with at all, but it’s a pageview nonetheless – it counts as an impression, and as a statistic for the site’s audience (and rightfully so, since the user did tap on the headline).
While the legal side of the matter is very important (nobody wants to get sued), at News360 we have also thought a lot about the ethics of the matter. Any news aggregation or personalization system greatly depends on the content producers – after all, they are the ones doing the hard work of creating these articles, and we think that they should have all the readership and ad revenue they can get. However, no one source can provide a 100% complete or balanced view of the news, which is where News360 comes in – we want to bring the best content to readers that either don’t have a specific source they subscribe to (because hardcore New York Times readers will always read the content in the NYTimes app, or on their site, or on the pages of the paper) or want to broaden their outlook with other perspectives.
I would argue that it is the RSS readers who have actually dealt more damage to the large news sites than news aggregators, because they take the, for example, Washington Post readers outside of the Washington Post, reducing value and control over the content. The news aggregators, on the other hand, actually bring non-Washington Post readers into their site, adding value, and giving the paper a chance to convert them into subscribers and build a brand among people outside their readership. If the aggregator actually links to the site, that is.