Are online news aggregators vampires? – Catherine Tucker

MIT Sloan Professor Catherine Tucker

MIT Sloan Professor Catherine Tucker

It isn’t often that an MIT Professor studies “vampire” like entities. However, that is exactly how news aggregators such as Huffington Post and Google News have been described by Mark Cuban of Shark Tank fame.

The reason that Mr. Cuban thinks that aggregators deserve dracula-like appelations is that as he expresses – “Don’t let them suck your blood. Vampires take, but don’t give anything back.” In other words if you produce content the work of such news aggregators is viewed as been purely parasitic.

However, in a recent study I have shown that aggregators are not the blood suckers of the media industry that some have thought they were.

The study focuses on the 2010 showdown between Google News and the Associated Press over digital aggregation of news content by the Google platform. In January 2010, after a breakdown in licensing negotiations, Google News removed from its platform all news articles by the Associated Press, a media consortium that produces and shares news stories among its media members, including both large and small newspapers in the U.S.

The dispute lasted only a few months, but it provided a terrific opportunity to gauge how online traffic is impacted by the inclusion, then exclusion, of aggregated online content on a platform.

Specifically, our study investigated whether aggregation of content by a single platform encourages users to “skim” content or to investigate it in depth. The temporary removal of AP stories from Google News also afforded us the opportunity to measure and compare online traffic at rival Yahoo! News, which continued to carry AP content, during the Google News-AP dispute.

We found that there was little bonus to news sites that carried AP content when Google didn’t’ carry it. There was no boost in traffic in general and little sign that people stopped using Google News. However, after AP materials were removed from Google News, after they read Google News, users were less likely to seek out more information from the news sites that carried AP news.

Smaller news publications that rely more heavily on AP content for news were hit hardest, while larger and more influential publications that are less dependent on AP material didn’t suffer as big of a hit.

The bottom line: Producers of online content should be careful about what they wish for when it comes to cracking down on, or limiting, news aggregation on platforms.

Data from the Google News-AP contractual dispute suggests that both aggregation platforms and online content providers benefit, in terms of traffic flow, from providing viewers with a rich array of content sources, suggesting that both sides have a stake in making online news aggregation work best for all.

Catherine Tucker is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management Science and Professor of Marketing at MIT Sloan. She is also Chair of the MIT Sloan PhD Program.

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