Reuters adopts link journalism with Counterparties
Article by Claire HEMERY • Published 09.11.2011 • Updated 09.11.2011
Has the website Counterparties turned the British news agency into an infomediary? Reuters is attempting to break into this new medium regardless of the declining influence of mainstream Internet news.
Counterparties.com is the product of a compilation of the RSS and Twitter feeds Felix Salmon follows (close to 2,000 in total). Content is selected based on popularity and share ratio, using an algorithm developed by New York startup Percolate. This pre-selection is then edited by Felix Salmon and Ryan McCarthy, who rephrase article titles and add typology tags – “Interesting,” “Be Afraid,” “Charts,” EU Mess,” etc. – to provide hints on the content or interest of each newspiece. The links they consider more important are taken out of “The River” – the right-hand column – and are given a larger font size and a white background to increase their readability, reducing editorial work to a minimum. The original content is accessible by clicking on hyperlinks that lead to the news originator’s website.
Counterparties.com launch video
Felix Salmon, whose blog has been hosted by Reuters since 2006 and ranked among Time Magazine’s top 25 finance blogs of 2011, is a graduate from Glasgow University (UK). He moved to the United States in 1997. Ryan McCarthy, also of British origin, cut his teeth as an editor of the Business column at the Huffington Post from 2009 to 2011. Their website borrows from other aggregation experiments: it draws inspiration from the casual style and tongue-in-cheek tags of The Awl and Fark. Counterparties also aims for the same kind of links relevance that has made The Drudge Report and Techmeme successful, all the while distinguishing itself as design-wise by putting more emphasis on ergonomics and simplicity, and made easier with the absence of advertisement. Salmon acknowledges that being launched in this way without a short-term objective of monetization is a luxury. Salmon and McCarthy are link journalism addicts – “journos”, as Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism Lab (Harvard University) called them in a paper she devoted to the launch of Counterparties.com.
The concept of “link journalism” appeared in February 2008 under Publish2 founder Scott Karp’s pen. It is based on the link economy theory developed by Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. Both find a paradigm shift in the information economy: the value of the link has replaced the value of content. In a market where content distribution is just as strategic and more profitable than content production, linking becomes a key issue for traditional media outlets being dethroned – in audience, and therefore in advertising revenue – by aggregators.Using the example of Google and the traffic it attracts, Karp hopes to convince content producers who are reluctant to offer links to competing websites.
Jeff Jarvis believes that repeating a story is waste of time, and urges media outlets to focus on what they’re good at, and provide links to the other information. Their theory has been publicized in France by blogger Guillaume Narvic who, in an article entitled “La stratégie des fous à lier” (“The mad linker strategy”), shares his belief that linking provides journalists with the ideal opportunity to claim back territories the Web 2.0 has partly pushed them out of: research, prioritization, and recommendation. On the Internet, traditional media are facing competition from information intermediaries that are able “to match up a flourishing and scattered range of web content with web surfers whose demands can be disparate and sometimes highly specific. In so doing, they fulfill a key matching function between editorial production and network access.”
So the launch of Counterparties.com seems to belatedly answer Scott Karp who, back in September 2008, was calling on all news sites to not only produce content but to aggregate links, exclaiming out of disappointment and annoyance: “Drudge [The Drudge Report] has no competition!” He was particularly pointing the finger at news agencies whose mission, he believes, is no longer to provide full content from a small number of sources, but to offer links to the best on the web, from all sources. His wish has been heard: Felix Salmon is pleased today to see the prestigious Reuters brand adopting the “link culture” and becoming the first mainstream media to create a website exclusively devoted to referrals to other sites.
Counterparties.com is not a breakthrough; its architecture and editorial line are not out of the ordinary in the Internet landscape. But the presence of the logo of the number one news agency in the world is surprising. Why has Thomson-Reuters agreed to share the enthusiasm of Salmon, Karp and Jarvis toward linking, while most media remain rather chilly, in spite of new practices? The agency was quick to act in reinventing itself in order to better compete with new information players (the bloggers and aggregators) and to get ahead of its traditional competitors. Counterparties.com provides Reuters with a strategic opportunity to imitate the former and rise above the latter. In 2009, as the Associated Press was stirring another heated debate trying to protect its content and limit its propagation, Reuters Media president Chris Ahearn seized the opportunity and published a blog post that claimed “I Believe in the Link Economy.” Reuters must at all cost distinguish itself from the AP, its main obstacle to a breakthrough into the US market, and choosing a British expatriate in the United States to launch Counterparties was not an insignificant decision. Through a diversification of its operations (investigative journalism, analysis, videos), its website design and its public branding strategy, Reuters is revealing its innovative side and is trying to adapt to its customers’ new reading habits and needs, creating a wry form of competition.
Reuters’ goal is to get to know the profile and behavior of Counterparties users before developing monetization strategies, explains Chrystia Freeland, the agency’s “Digital” director. Reuters can enjoy its lead as the first news agency to enter the finance-specific aggregation market, where it has an unquestionable authority.
Reuters is not ready to accept the loss of influence of old media that some consider inevitable. With Counterparties.com, the agency shows a level of web understanding many were eagerly waiting to see from a historic institution. Reuters has positioned itself (though prudently – Felix Salmon’s portal is separate from Reuters.com, the agency’s official website) as an infomediary . Spreading out across the news chain,it is betting on the fact that “providing useful links brings back visitors [to the initial site] more easily,” as Marc Mentré concluded in his research on The SEO Company. The success of Counterparties will depend on the relevance of its selection, aggregation, curation, and the credibility of its editor, if Scott Karp is right: “Just remember Google’s law of links on the Web –the better job you do at sending people away, the more they come back.” The stakes remain high while the risk and investment are minimal: Reuters has everything to gain. In an issue devoted to the economics of online journalism, The Columbia Journalism Review pointed out that “readers have a large appetite but a short attention span.” To capture their undivided attention you cannot simply offer quality content anymore. The media are therefore required to satisfy their readers’ appetite and their over-demanding desire of ubiquity and comprehensiveness if they wish to retain them. And in the words of Scott Karp, in offering them the web itself, link aggregation makes this possible.
A lecture on links by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at the University of New York
Translated from French by François Couture
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