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Andrew Conte on Media: News aggregators need newspapers

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Tribune-Review contributing writer Andrew Conte.

Adam Shuck started out two years ago this month with an email to 30 friends, sending them links to Pittsburgh news stories and offering his unique perspective.

He had no formal journalism training but his daily newsletter, “Eat That, Read This,” turned out to be popular. He now has 4,700 subscribers, sells advertisements and has turned writing the emails into a full-time job.

Shuck faithfully credits the original news sources and spreads around links to various media outlets.

He occasionally takes aim at journalists, too.

“There are times when I’m kind of mocking or excoriating,” Shuck told me recently, “but at the same time, I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing if journalists weren’t doing this work.”

Journalists who create news content — videos, photographs, stories — have a complicated relationship with news aggregators and curators who use someone else’s content to build their own audiences. Journalists want their work to be seen but they also need to be paid.

The most successful aggregators have large followings and can steer thousands of clicks to the news outlets they cite. A single mention on the Drudge Report can drive enough readers to a news site to crash its servers.

News clicks translate to pennies that add up to dollars. But legacy media companies have found that’s a hard way to survive. Stories rarely draw enough clicks to cover reporting costs.

Plus, websites that curate the news typically provide enough information that casual readers have few reasons to click through to the original source. That doesn’t bring in any money for the content creator.

I visited last year with an employee of the Daily Skimm, a weekday email newsletter targeted to millennial, working women who live in large urban areas. The newsletter, based in New York City, now has more than a dozen employees writing witty commentary rather than doing original reporting (Recent headline: “What to say to your friend whose only dance move is the lawn mower …”).

The Skimm’s founders appear successful, raising venture capital and partnering in the past with advertisers such as Chase bank and the NBA.

News companies are not unaware of what’s happening. The Tribune-Review’s affiliate, 535media, recently got in the game. It debuted a website called upgruv that curates the news for millennial readers, with a Pittsburgh twist. It frequently links to news sources other than the Trib.

In Philadelphia, founders of another website and daily email newsletter called Billy Penn have carved out a niche with a distinctly local voice.

Billy Penn’s editorial staff of eight curates the best stories from other sources — frequently Philly.com — and creates some original content. The company sells advertisements and hosts monthly events that make money from corporate sponsors. Its daily newsletter reaches about 5,000 subscribers.

The concept has proven so popular that the nation’s largest newspaper publishing company, Gannett Corporation, which prints USAToday and 90 regional newspapers such as the Indianapolis Star and Arizona Republic, has signed on. Gannett in March became a minority partner in Spirited Media, Billy Penn’s parent company, investing enough money for it to add reporters and sales staff while expanding.

Spirited Media plans to start a Pittsburgh-themed website and newsletter called The Incline by the end of summer. Founder Jim Brady looked closely at Baltimore and Chicago as places to start up but settled on Pittsburgh even though the city has two daily newspapers.

The Incline cannot compete with newspapers for breadth of coverage, Brady told me, but it can curate the best of the city’s news for an audience of readers who are younger than 40 and who grew up in the digital age.

Pittsburgh, he believes, has room for many types of media outlets.

“We don’t really benefit much if the newspapers go south,” he said. “I just think the winner-takes-all thing is over.”

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University. His column appears monthly.

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