Recently, I wrote about the focus on original reporting that online magazines such as Salon.com and Gawker have decided to develop. According to this article by David Skok, these changes in editorial strategies are normal and have historical precedents: TIME magazine went through a similar transformation.

Skok, therefore, concludes that “the aggregators of today will be the original reporters of tomorrow”. Yet there will always be a place for smart curation. Each publication has to find the right mix to serve its audience.

Curation Lacks In Journalistic Institutions

However, original reporting and curation aren’t mutually exclusive and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. They both need to be used in their place and adapted to our purposes.

As Mathew Ingram writes in this GigaOm article about the debate around aggregation and curation as theft, “the question that matters is whether it serves the reader”. Patient, thoughtful and enthusiastic curation is helpful to both author and reader as another way to make sense of a complex and noisy world.

As journalistic institutions take the narrow view of journalism, they miss out on opportunities to bring value through curation. This is what Martin Belam calls the “curation gap”. He writes:

For me ‘the curation gap’ is that, at present, most mainstream media organisations seem lacking in the tools, or the will, or both, to bring the best of the voices in those niches and make them relevant to the mass audience.

He also says that journalists have the right tools with their “ethics, legal training, mass cross-platform audience” to become great curators. I second this with all my heart.

Some institutions and old-school journalists have a hard time understanding the value of curation because they focus on their feeling of being ripped off. They don’t make the distinction between content scraping, aggregation and curation. They fail to see that curation and writing share most their core processes.

Writing and Curating, Same Skills

So much so, I would argue curators are bound to be good writers and good writers have it in them to be tremendous curators. Both are a labour of love, a constant learning experience, and take courage. The courage to face the gaps in your argumentation and build bridges over them to be clear.

Taking different arguments made by other people, using them in a new argument, and taking the whole thing one or several steps further than the preceding authors did is the essence of essay writing, isn’t it? Curation is like that: curators summarize, quote and link other people’s work. They also add contextual information which tells audiences what the information means and — more importantly — why they should care.

Like strawberry picking, the process of curation is difficult, time-consuming and impossible to fully automate. Sometimes the ties that bind collections together are shy and take time to come out. The context is hard to explain clearly and the purpose of the collection might be hard to uncover and convey.

There is a real difference between reposting content and creating meaningful collections. Gawker’s lone strange goat pales in comparison with Buzzfeed’s collection of disappointed animals, for example. Both are trivial but the latter represents a greater curation effort.

The result of these efforts is valuable, too. Journalists need not fear but join curators as we touch the audiences who wouldn’t understand or relate to the relevance of a piece right away. We make the wonders of the world more accessible. We need more attempts at making sense of the world, not fewer.

If you need a quick way to understand or explain curation, Percolate offers a thoughtful definition of curation and a manifesto packed in a short video (via Brain Pickings). Time and attention, contextualization, communicative enthusiasm: the most important aspects are covered in the video.

Thorny Question of Money

Since curation is an emotional and intellectual labour much like writing, true curation can’t be cheap. The thorny question of publications’ business models is still hanging over our heads. Whether they produce curation, original content or a mix of the two, money remains an issue.

Brain Pickings is supported by donations. Salon.com has a freemium model. The Browser makes money through Amazon referrals and plans to move to “a mixture of sponsorship, advertising and ‘freemium access’,” according to The TelegraphGawker‘s 100% ad-supported.

There’s no single business model for web-based publications and probably will never be. Curation is as expensive and hard to monetize as any content but it is a useful service and represents true opportunities to serve needs which aren’t fully served yet.

Top image credit: “Strawberry Picking” by bigbirdz. Creative Commons License BY.

Evren Kiefer
Evren is a writer/editor interested in content strategy. The interplay between culture and networked technologies has been a long time passion. He writes, both in English and in French, about these and related topics on evrenkiefer.com.

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