Online publishers have a problem. They can see that aggregators are capturing value from just linking to publishers' content, and want a piece of the action. Some have resorted to accusations and some to legal threats. But if aggregation is so hot, why don't publishers just get in on the game and start linking to all and sundry?
If publishers simply started adding links to other people's content on their front pages this could lead to a decrease in click-throughs to their own content – and, as a result, a decrease in profits too. And while it might seem this could be avoided by publishing less content – "cover what you do best and link to the rest", as Jeff Jarvis recommends – this is easier said than done.
There are two reasons for this. First, for many publishers content costs can only be cut by firing journalists – a slow and painful process. Second, online publishers who also have a print operation (i.e., all the mainstream publishers) have no option but to pay for all the content they publish in print. And once this cost is incurred, the extra cost of making content available online is negligible. So print publishers are stuck with hosting their own expensive content online, and then they have no choice but to try to monetize it by driving traffic to it. Because of this, they can't follow Jarvis' dictum.
Aaron Mishkin has recently proposed a new alternative: stop worrying about the web, and embrace other internet platforms where the dreaded separation between aggregation and content – i.e. the hyperlink– doesn't exist and each publisher can have its own self-contained environment. E-readers like the Kindle and app stores like Apple's could thus be media's saviours. There may or may not be money in this, but betting your company against the web seems an awfully risky strategy.
The strategic picture seems clear. In the web there are few if any synergies from simultaneously owning content and aggregation assets, while in print the synergies are at the core of business models. The billion-dollar question is how to live with both models at the same time.
(This post's title is a reference to a similar problem studied in detail by Clayton Christensen in his book "The Innovator's Dilemma". There as here, incumbent firms could see that new, low-cost competitors using new business models were eating their lunch, and yet were unable to react without killing their profits. More on that soon.)