Friday, November 26

NewsBreak : Australian newspaper publisher first to scrape other's headlines?

Extraordinary news! Fairfax Digital, the online arm of one of Australia's two major newspaper publishers, has just launched a news aggregation site that scrapes the headlines from its own mastheads and those of others here and overseas. Called NewsBreak, the service is sure to raise a lot of eyebrows, and maybe they need to tweak the model a little more before it's really ready for primetime.

For instance, no more than a year ago, I was negotiating to pay for those same headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, the publishers of Newsbreak. I can't remember the rate they wanted to charge me, and I abandoned negotiations when it was clear it was unaffordable, but clearly someone out there was paying that much for them. Now, a year later, they're worth nothing. I suppose the prevalence of other sites - Google News, bloggers (including me) - scraping those headlines has eroded the value of headlines quite a bit, but still, it's a surprise to see the copyright owner engaging in the same activity, giving up the charade and admitting that headlines are worth only the ad impression and the pageview you get one someone clicks on the headline.

Also, Newsbreak doesn't limit itself to Fairfax publications, which is admirably realistic for a service that wants to be successful, but still, here's an Australian newspaper publisher, traditionally an inward-looking, incestuous, defensive, paranoid species of organisation, behaving like it's prepared to encourage its audience to consume news stories from rivals. When was the last time you saw a TV news anchor tell you to change channels to see more coverage of this story from a rival network? When was the last time a radio talk-back host encouraged you to listen to an alternative viewpoint on another radio station?

More astounding: the Newsbreak site even features stories from its arch-rival, The Australian (though not, it appears from the other arch-rival, the Daily Telegraph.) I know business development people working on those mastheads who are wandering around in a daze of confusion as I write this, expecting pigs to go flying past at any minute, this is such an extraordinary development. The About Us section of Newsbreak says that stories from The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald will always appear above those from other publishers, but still, how long does it take to scan a list of headlines sorted by topic and click on the one with the most interesting/sensational headline?

Interestingly, most headlines these days are still written by newspaper subeditors looking to fit a headline to a space on the printed page - that constraint still limits their creativity. On a site built from scraped headlines, the copy in the headline is all-important. So even though their own stories will appear at the top, I'm betting the publisher with the most sensational headlines will get the most traffic from Newsbreak. And Rupert's subs are known for being more sensational than Fairfax's.

Finally (though this is sure to change soon) if you click on a scraped headline on the Newsbreak site, it doesn't open the story in a new browser window as you'd expect, leaving the Newsbreak site in the background. Instead it takes you to the news page in the same browser window, leaving you to use the back button in your browser toolbar to get back to Newsbreak. Of course, you could also click on a link on that news story and stay within the newspaper website you've just been kindly directed to by Newsbreak. And what are the scraped news publishers paying for all this free traffic from Newsbreak? Not a cent, I'm sure.

Surprises me and delights me most of all because I (and others) predicted this would happen to news publishing one day, but it's great to see it happen before I die!

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