Leonard Downie Jr, former executive editor of the Washington Post, hit out at news aggregators last night in a lecture at City University, calling them "parasites living off journalism produced by others".

Delivering the university's James Cameron Memorial Lecture, Downie Jr. cited the Huffington Post as an example, criticising it for relying on "revealing photos of and stories about entertainment celebrities" for its "highly touted web traffic".

"The aggregators fill their websites with news, opinion, features, photographs and video that they continuously collect – some would say steal – from other national and local news sites, along with mostly unpaid postings by bloggers who settle for exposure in lieu of money."

Downie Jr. also attacked the growing number of so-called content farms – "on which the content is managed by computer logarithms rather than human editors" – and blogs.

"At the other end of the digital spectrum from all that organized journalism is the chaotic universe of blogs and social networks.

"Most of what they originate is trivia: personal activities, observations, opinions and images – and, of course, sometimes malicious rumors that too often are believed by too many people. As disturbing number of Americans still believe that President Obama is a Muslim who was born outside the United States, in part because so many bloggers and tweeters say so."

He did acknowledge the role of blogs in what he called an "increasingly symbiotic" American news media.

"[B]logs and social networks also transmit real news: by sharing or linking to news produced by the organized media or by offering meaningful and accurate original information.

"In fact, the blogosphere and American news media have become increasingly symbiotic. They feed off each other’s information and commentary, and they even fact-check each other. They share audiences, and they mimic each other through evolving forms of digital journalism."

Praising the rise in non-profit new organisations, Downie Jr. called for more news organisations in the US – including existing newspapers – to be organised as tax-exempt non-profits, and encouraged the country's philanthropists and foundations to "substantially increase their support for non-profit journalism".

Also at the event, Michela Wrong was awarded the prize in recognition of her courageous approach to reporting on political and social developments in post-Cold War Africa and a special award was presented to Michael Cockerell for his contribution to the public's understanding of politics and institutions of government.

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