In the newspaper business, aggregation has a bad name. We blame news aggregators for stealing our original content and contributing to the downfall of our industry.

In truth, aggregation can help news websites as much as it can hurt them. Aggregation exists at three levels, each progressively adding more journalistic value.

The first level of aggregation takes from other websites without giving them much back or adding anything for the reader. This takes the form of listing headlines or copying and pasting the first few paragraphs of a story and providing a link to the original version. Don’t get me wrong. This level of aggregation is legal if done correctly. Moreover, a link from the Drudge Report, The Huffington Post or Yahoo News can bring hundreds of thousands of readers to a website — and smaller sites should welcome the exposure such links can bring. As it turns out, however, these readers probably aren’t as likely to return in the future as those who land on a news site in some other way — at least based on the traffic data I’ve seen at the Missourian and elsewhere.

The second level of aggregation can be a public service for readers. It involves providing links to useful information — and summarizing what readers should expect when they click through to those links. (An example from the Missourian’s website is a quick summary of coverage from a recent Monday evening meeting of the Columbia City Council.)

The third level of aggregation is as much storytelling as providing links to other online information sources. It involves creativity and synthesizing more than copying or summarizing. At this level of aggregation, writers might not be reporting, but they are researching. Instead of calling a source on the phone or attending a meeting, they’re turning to other sources of online information — stories on our site, commentary elsewhere online and direct background material — for their own original stories. This level of aggregation involves not dropping our standards. We should insist on the same level of accuracy and fairness — and we should verify information — just as we would with a story written by a reporter. (An example from the Missourian is our very popular The Week in Missouri Football feature.)

At the Missourian, our interactive copy editing desk has been busy creating aggregated content at the levels of public service and storytelling this semester. I’ll have more details about their work in a future post.