Egypt’s Akhbarak.net has no writers crafting painstakingly beautiful opening sentences, no foreign reporters covering faraway wars, and no journalists’ expense accounts to worry about.
In fact, the news service has very little human input at all.
And yet Akhbarak is the 15th most popular website in Egypt, outranking Twitter, Wikipedia and the Al Ahram newspaper in terms of audience, according to Alexa figures.
How does it do it? Mainly by relying on others’ hard work.
Akhbarak is one of many ‘news aggregation’ services, offering hyperlinks to interesting news stories on other sites, but offering little or no original content of its own.
Global examples of news aggregators include the U.S.-based Drudge Report (which, despite mainly offering links to other sites, is credited with breaking the Monica Lewinsky scandal).
Google News, Newslookup, Newsvine and the World News Network are all examples of other news aggregators. Sites such as the Huffington Post have elements of news aggregation, but offer original content on top.
While news aggregation isn’t a new concept globally, the people behind Akhbarak – which is owned by telecoms giant Vodafone Egypt – say there is still room for growth in the Arab world.
The site plans to ramp up its web presence as it looks for more readers in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region, said Assem Emam, brand manager at Akhbarak.net.
“As long as people are still interested in reading news, I think they will be interested in seeing the news in one place, on aggregators,” he said.
Akhbarak was founded in 2003 by Osman Ahmed Osman, a Computer Science graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S.
It originally aggregated content from five news sources, but now scans 150 sites in Egypt and the wider Arab world. Emam said the site attracted 70 million page views over the last month, a figure he sees increasing in the future.
Sarmady, a Cairo-based web company owned by Vodafone, acquired 55 percent of Akhbarak around 18 months ago, Emam said.
The company is now looking to push two additional news aggregation sites as it looks to pull in more advertising revenue.
The first is a sports site called Reyada.com, targeting Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. “We’re going to aggregate from all sports sites in the GCC,” said Emam.
The second is called DarAlAkhbar.com, a general news site targeting Saudi Arabia, in which the company plans to boost investment in the near future.
Minimal human involvement is key to running such sites, which automatically pick stories from elsewhere.
“The most important thing for us was developing something that does not require any human interaction,” said Emam. “Everything happens automatically.”
The only real manual editorial work in running the sites comes with setting the proportion of articles – so 60 per cent of stories could be political in nature, for example – along with producing graphics and handling social media.
Revenues from the site come from advertising – both via Google ads and direct sales – and SMS alerts. Emam did not specify how much money the site is making.
Other news aggregators active in the region include the global giant Google News, which in 2009 launched Arabic editions covering Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Worldwide, Google News scans an incredible 50,000 sources for the latest headlines.
Emam said that there “are no other news aggregators near us” in terms of popularity in the Arab world. Google declined to comment on its regional traffic figures for its News service.
Other aggregation sites in Arabic include Newsery.net and Arab World News. Emam said he considers the main competition to be Google News, traditional news sites and app-based aggregators like Flipboard and Pulse.
Emam says that aggregators are of benefit to regular news sites. “We actually benefit these websites, because we drive lots of traffic to them,” he said.
The relationship between news aggregators and mainstream media has however not always been an easy one.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) in 2005 filed a suit accusing Google of copyright infringement for posting its headlines, news summaries and photos on its News service without permission. In 2007, AFP and Google settled the copyright lawsuit.
Analyst Thomas Kuruvilla, managing partner at the consultancy Arthur D Little in the Middle East, said part of the “controversy” around the news aggregation model centers around the “legitimacy of repackaging ‘scraped content’ available online.”
Traditional media companies still need to keep up with news aggregation sites, Kuruvilla said. “Original content providers have to keep pace with this and reinvent the model, especially in the digital space,” he says.
Matt Duffy, who teaches media law at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, U.S., and who has studied the Middle East media market, said that news aggregation was a “low overhead” business because the websites do not typically spend money producing content.
“I’d say news aggregators with an audience are obviously performing a public service and delivering something people want to read,” Duffy said. “As a journalist you hate to see it because the sites they’re linking to are the ones spending money to produce the news. Financially, therefore, news aggregation can be a lucrative business.”
Such sites survive through advertising revenue, he added. “They work by creating a site that makes it easier for audiences to get news from more than one source,” Duffy says. “If aggregator sites get eyeballs, advertising money will follow.”SHOW MORE