From an interview with Josh Cohen, Google News' product man:
My value is my editorial filtering. I recognize that if I send you off [my site], and I just put a link to an update, if I'm the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal has a good update, I'm going to link off to it, so that I know that this is a good source that tells me what I should be reading, even if it's not on their own site.
That's what's going to set me coming back. Not because I'm trapped into their web site, and I have to know that all the information is coming from there. There's a comfort level, there needs to be a comfort level, to send people out.
There's so much truth in this that it's worth putting it more explicitly: in news, people never go back to content they've read before. They go back to places where they've had a good content experience, precisely because they don't know what they'll find when they go back – otherwise it's not news. What is this place? It's a page that
- Has a fixed, short URL, so people can remember it
- Has a series of links to content, not content
- Is frequently updated
In other words, an aggregation. Nothing in this list says that the aggregation and the content it links to need to be owned by the same people.
As with all products, what drives loyalty to a brand is the reliable, repeated satisfaction of a key customer need. The main need in news is coverage. And that need is addressed by the aggregation of content, not content itself.
Editors like to think that what brings people back to their sites is their content brands. I like what I read, I remember the brand, and then I come back for more. Maybe, to some extent. But that kind of loyalty is based on a need for something other than coverage—namely, the need for a certain writing style, a certain perspective, etc – i.e. for content. But, in news, the need for coverage is far stronger than the need for content. If this is right, then it's easier to charge for aggregation than it is for content.
So here's a prediction. Barring legal hurdles, one day we will see the likes of the Drudge go behind a pay-wall even if most of the content they link to is free.
If you are a publisher and you don't have enough good content to compete with the aggregators, you need to start linking out.