What can be counted, and what counts by Andy Serwer @FortuneMagazine January 16, 2014, 12:15 PM EDT E-mail Tweet Facebook Google Plus Linkedin Share icons Nearly every day someone starts up a new news media company. And nearly every day you read about the struggles of existing news media companies. It’s an easily explained paradox: The new ones are digital endeavors horning in on the old ones, which weren’t digital at inception and have hidebound ways and high cost structures. But there’s more to it than that. Most of the newbies don’t practice the same type of journalism or create the same type of content as the oldies. Just as TV producers take advantage of their medium’s ability to transmit moving images, so do digital producers leverage the web’s dirt-cheap distribution and sharing capability. Digital media is reshaping the news business in a zillion positive ways. More people have more access to more information faster — by orders of magnitude — than 20 years ago. Anyone can become a practitioner too: Just open up WordPress and shoot! All of this engenders transparency and democratization, and who’s not for that? Still, I wonder if anything is lost in this reordering. Some say unequivocally no. Or they might say, “If you count the metaphorical buggy-whip manufacturers going out of business, they lose, but that’s it.” I think the answer is more nuanced. Many of the most successful new titles — HuffPo, BuzzFeed, Gawker, etc. — were birthed in the cradle of aggregation. There’s nothing wrong with that, although in practice, sites like these have made it their business model to summarize as much of a piece of original content (say, a New York Times story) as they can in the name of “fair use” to divert traffic away from its creator (the New York Times) to themselves. Does that violate the letter of the law? Apparently not. Does it violate the spirit? Maybe only a sore-loser buggy-whip maker would even ask that question. Aggregation — and aggregating aggregation — has become an art form, one whose ablest practitioner may be a 32-year-old named Neetzan Zimmerman. Until recently Zimmerman worked at Gawker, where in some months he was responsible for a mind-blowing 70% of that site’s unique visitors. (He has recently decamped to a new site called Whisper, “a free anonymous social platform for people who want to creatively share and connect with others over experiences, feelings, thoughts, and dreams that they can’t communicate anywhere else.”) Not long ago Zimmerman explained his methodology in a piece titled “This Is How You Make Something Go Viral: An Impractical Guide.” If I understand Zimmerman, he studies the way content passes from websites offering crazy cat videos and the like to other sites that disseminate the content more widely, and seizes upon items that are “reaching that critical stage of going from radar blip to full-scale red alert.” (I think what it really comes down to is that Zimmerman is better at finding viral stuff than other people.) Zimmerman’s conclusions are provocative: “Do stories that are not being shared even matter?” he asks. “The answer, undoubtedly, is no. How could they?” And this: “Understanding why something works is an exercise in futility. More than that it is completely unnecessary.” Not exactly Edward R. Murrow, is it? News sites these days look for “traffic whores,” as they are called — those who can jack page views and UVs to the moon. And so we live in a golden age not of journalism but of metrics, where the clicks on our work are the measure that matters. Brings to my skeptical mind the line by American sociologist William Bruce Cameron: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” The only thing that will make a media business sustainable is a staff of incredibly talented and/or freethinking people. That means either award-winning journalists or people like Neetzan Zimmerman. Or actually, probably both. This story is from the February 3, 2014 issue of Fortune.