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While that all sounds encouraging for the news industry, the researchers noted a significant downside—users visited the home pages of local sites less than before, meaning that local sites lost their role as curators of news. News sites carefully structure their pages to highlight stories they believe are important, but the Microsoft researchers found that aggregators degraded the value of this arrangement.

The researchers say they’re continuing the study, and are interested in looking at how news aggregators affect other types of news consumption. For example, they want to look at whether exposure to left- or right-leaning media through an aggregator can influence a person to read a broader variety of news. They also plan to study how social media habits affect news consumption.

But the researchers’ results—even the ones that sound encouraging—serve to highlight long-standing problems that news outlets are facing, says Scott Karp, cofounder and CEO of Publish2, a content distribution platform that aims to help news organizations make better use of the coverage they produce. “The home page, for national, niche, and local news alike, has been on a long slide into irrelevance,” Karp says. This is particularly a problem because the home page is often where sites concentrate their efforts to monetize. “Even worse,” he adds, “local news sites have a glut of poorly monetized page views, which means more page views from aggregators have little business value.”

Karp hopes that local news outlets can convince people to follow them to formats that will serve both outlet and reader better. On tablets and in apps, he says, publishers might be able to regain their power to provide a consistent user experience (rather than being a pit stop as users bounce from one site to another through an aggregator). In the process, he believes, they may find a better return on investment than has so far been the norm online. 

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