Feb 6, 2013 · 4 minutes

I'll spare you the preamble and the hand-wringing over whether or not Google News-style aggregation benefits publishers. The short answer is it does. But only because the excerpt-style aggregation, as opposed to rewrites, gives readers a reason to visit the site of origin and see the original reporting.

In the case of a minor tiff that broke out between Business Insider and Digiday yesterday, that wasn't so. A short timeline, if you will:

  • Digiday publishes a post comparing photos of digital execs from when they were younger with photos them from today. Journalism! (In Digiday's defense, the editor did describe the post as a "somewhat silly Friday feature.")
  • Business Insider takes a screenshot of one of those photo-comparisons, of Tumblr's Rick Webb, and publishes it under the headline: "Here's An Awesome Photo of Tumblr's Rick Webb When He Was A Teenage Goth." Awesome! (NB: A "somewhat silly Friday feature" is BI's bread, butter, and marmalade – just substitute the word "Friday" for "any day.")
  • Digiday editor Brian Morrissey publishes a post protesting BI's action, arguing that it wasn't a fair trade because BI got vastly more traffic for its post than the original generated, and that Digiday only saw minimal traffic thanks to BI's link.
  • In the ensuing Twitter squabble – because this is how men settle things in the 21st Century – BI editor Henry Blodget tells Morrissey he should be grateful for the exposure. Morrissey digs his heels in. Blodget agrees to remove the screenshot and fixes the post. (Update: Just to clarify, BI had linked to the Digiday story from the start.) He lectures Morrissey on his way out: "When someone links to us and sends readers, those are readers we would not have gotten. That's helpful! So we are grateful!"
  • Never one to look a link-bait horse in the mouth, Blodget milks more from the argument by publishing a post today in which he says he just loves BI content to get aggregated, or even mentioned without a link, because it expands the brand and brings in new readers. "Thank you for aggregating us!" screams Blodget's headline.
Blodget's argument is an old one, and mostly passable. In most cases, a publication that gets excerpted and linked to by another publication will be grateful for the traffic or credibility boost. In this case, however, Blodget is pushing the line of common decency. By plucking the juiciest content of Digiday's story and repackaging it so it might as well have been its own, Business Insider goes further than mere aggregation – it profits from simply sticking its own brand on something that was thought up, discovered, and produced by someone else. There is a link and full attribution, so it's not theft. But it is petty.

Blodget can make the argument that he's sending readers to Digiday that the niche publication otherwise wouldn't have had, but at the same time Business Insider is also giving readers a reason not to go to Digiday. "We've got the best stuff here," he's saying. "Don't worry about trudging around the rest of the Web to dig up this content." Effectively, bully BI is jumping to the front of the attention queue and waving its arms the hardest. "Look what I found!"

Obviously, BI is not alone in these practices. BuzzFeed does a similar thing, especially in its aggregation of content from the likes of Reddit and Tumblr. But seldom does BuzzFeed, or anyone else, just go to another site, pick one story, lift the best content from it, and then do a matching story to call its own. With BuzzFeed, there is an element of actual research and digging that goes into its aggregation. Hell, I've even done similar. Just the other day, I grabbed a few graphs from various sources, including Business Insider, to illustrate a post about why Facebook is so desperate to call itself a mobile company.

In this case, however, it looks as if BI has seen a Tweet, followed a link, thought "Oh that's interesting awesome!", taken the best bit for itself, and created a "new" piece of content.

Yes, I know. That practice is as old as the Internet. As Mathew Ingram has said, "aggregation or curation is a fact of life in the digital age." But if you're in the habit of holding your company up as a leader of a glorious new era in digital media, as Blodget is, and you unashamedly bask in pageviews from high-school reports of plane trips to Germany, then you have a certain responsibility when it comes to leaning on other people's work. And part of that responsibility is to not throw a tantrum when someone objects to your definition of what's right and wrong when it comes to ethical use of their content.

It's great that Blodget likes aggregation, and most of us would happily take the extra traffic. But sometimes it's worth calling out. This is one of those times.

[Image via rankynphyle]