February 20th, 2008

Reinventing Journalism On The Web: Links As News, Links As Reporting


A cornerstone of journalism has always been reporting what key sources say, put in context and given perspective, alongside reported facts.

It’s time to reinvent that process on the web — make it dynamic — using the fundamental mechanism for connecting information and people: the LINK

“Do what you do best, and link to the rest” is Jeff Jarvis’ motto for newsrooms — the imperative is to reorient newsrooms from a resource-rich, monopoly distribution approach to reporting, where a newsroom could reasonably aim to do it all themselves, to a resource-constrained, networked media reality, where newsrooms must focus on original reporting that matters most — SUPPLEMENTED by links to other original reporting done by other newsrooms — and by individuals.

The idea is that journalists, editors, and newsrooms need to LEVERAGE the web, leverage the network to help them do more — in so many cases now, with less.

But I would take Jeff’s web-savvy advice a step further:

“Make linking to the rest an essential part of what you do best.”

Just as the reported quote is an essential element of journalism, on the web the “reported link” must become an essential element of journalism.

Robert Niles at Online Journalism Review has a practical guide to linking on the web, where he observes:

Ultimately, the addition of useful hyperlinking within an online news story reflects the strong reporting of its author. If a reporter does not know of online pages with extra information relating to the story, he or she cannot link to them. But if you have that information, why not share it with those readers who are eager for it?

Again, I would take this a step further — links aren’t just a fundamental element of the reporting.

Links can BE the reporting.

Jack Lail at Knoxnews.com — still setting records for speed and elegant simplicity of innovation — sent me this example:


Jack took a commodity AP story, available on dozens of other sites


…and used Publish2′s news aggregation platform to transform it into an original piece by REPORTING on what local TN bloggers were saying about the story. But he didn’t pull a bunch of quotes, as he would in a traditional news story — instead, he LINKED to the sources, creating an order of magnitude more value for a news consumer on the web (who, as Robert Niles says, are “eager for it” — just ask Google).

This is networked journalism — this is LEVERAGING the network.

But Jack wasn’t content to just make links an editorial supplement — for his next trick, he made the links THE STORY:

According to a comment Jack left on a post by Howard Weaver (about this post):

This “article” was in our Top 10 articles on Tuesday for the combined knoxnews/govolsxtra sites.


Here is a striking example of links supplementing a heroic original reporting effort, and of embracing innovation in the midst of covering deeply challenging news story:

Last week, the Rockford Register Star faced a tragedy in their own backyard with the killings at Northern Illinois University. Rockford did what they do best, reporting literally around the clock to help their shaken community understand what had happened and begin to face the difficult question of why. Their coverage goes on for pages, likely one of the most in-depth collections of original reporting on this story.

But Rockford decided they weren’t just going to provide the very best original reporting their own newsroom could produce. On this national story, with all of its difficult issues, they were going to provide their readers with the very best original reporting ANYWHERE on the web:


You can see next their original reporting a sidebar on the right that provides links to coverage from around the web. As Jack did, the team at Rockford realized that they had gathered a unique — perhaps even definitive — aggregation of coverage from across the web, enough for it to stand on its own:



Quick sidebar on the pace of innovation:

The NIU killings occurred on the afternoon of February 14. I got an email from Rockford assistant managing editor Anna Voelker at 1:30am saying they wanted to aggregate coverage of the tragedy from around the web — and “let’s make this happen.” Andy Brown, Rockford’s web copy editor who lead the charge on gathering links to the best reporting from a wide range of sources, followed up at 4:30am with details of what they needed. Web developer Josh Glovinsky called me around 8am and had the Publish2 headline widget up shortly thereafter. (I never asked how much sleep the newsroom had gotten, but I’m guessing not much.)

Hat tip also to Rockford Executive Editor Linda Grist Cunningham for providing the kind of “let’s do it” support and encouragement that newsroom innovation requires, and to tireless innovation champion Howard Owens for introducing me to Rockford — I’m looking forward to working with rest of their team.


Many news organizations and media companies have been — and some still are — wary of linking to other sites. Why would we send our readers away, the thinking goes, don’t we want them to stay here, on our site?

But that’s the funny thing about web — it’s so counterintuitive. The way it works is almost entirely the opposite of how media used to work.

Whenever I speak to media companies, newsrooms, editors, and journalists about the importance of linking on the web, I always use this example (which almost seems a cliche now, but it gets the point across):

I know of a website that does nothing but send people away — it’s only purposes is to link to other sites. But remarkably, people keep coming back, over and over and over again. Only to be sent away again. In fact, the only reason people keep coming back to this site is because it does such a great job of sending them away.

This site has been so successful at sending people away, that it’s been able to do very well with advertising: ~$15 billion

Can you guess which site?

Of course it’s Google.

Also keep in mind when you think about links as news, links as reporting, and links as editorial product — on the web (thanks in no small part to Google, and its link-based algorithms): Links are influential. Links set the agenda. Links direct public attention. Links connect ideas and people.

Everything journalism has always aspired to do.

  • I do think the blog format works better on the web than the classic news story format. (BTW, I'm using blog to mean a kind of content management system, as Scott has previously described it, as opposed to a forum for opinionated writing.)

    The formats we currently have -- classic news story, 700-word column and one-minute TV news report among others -- were all invented for the dominant media of their times.

    The web is a new medium so it makes sense that it has its own news formats and the blog CMS is one that appears to work well. It's good for the news junkie who checks in several times a day looking for the latest. It puts new developments in context. And it facilitates participation in a more interactive medium.

    I think eventually the more obsolete news formats will die out, which is not the same thing at all as saying that the news providers will die out.

    Newspaper execs need to plan now for the day that the paper product ceases to be profitable. Reporters and editors should be told to make the web the priority and the paper #2.

    A practical example: Snow has been the huge story of this winter in my city. Yet if you google snow and the city name, there's no major news organization that has a snow web page with links to everything.

    How come? Because they still think primarily in terms of the paper and the newscast. Cover it today and move on.

    An updated page -- a news Mahalo if you like -- from a paper with a brand name would climb the search rankings in days, maybe even hours, but doesn't exist.

    Even in regular city news -- and not overhyped hyperlocal -- there are plenty of holes to fill.

  • Great post Scott. Is it just me, or would a lot of people prefer news sites acted more like blogs? I know that's controversial, but that model works pretty well on the web. Maybe news sites do too. But I prefer reading blog style sites (read: sites that include links to related content on external sites and sites that aggregate content.) What about Sphere? http://www.sphere.com/ CNN and other news sites use Sphere to link to related content without having to do the aggregation work. Though I will say it doesn't seem to be that effective to me.

  • Christopher,

    Thanks for taking the time to read through the whole post -- the length kind of got away from me.

    "He’s assuming that MSM websites can and should function primarily like blogs."

    I don't think that's what Jeff assumes at all -- that's what the "do what you do best" part is about. Original content and reporting is still at the center.

    "This is why hundreds of sites include AP and Reuters content on their sites instead of just linking to it — because readers read the content *on that site* and those pageviews go to the parent organization’s bottom line."

    Here's where I disagree -- it's missing the forest for the trees. The page view is the trees. The forest is keeping the media brand relevant on the web -- and brands can no longer do that ONLY by providing content (which is not to diminish content's importance).

    There are a lot more page views to be generating by people coming to a media brand to find links to great content elsewhere than there is in insisting that all of the content has to be housed on the media site.

    It all comes back to the Google example -- why do people keep coming back to Google to generate more page views and more ad clicks? Because Google helps them find the best content on the web -- and it's done pretty well for Google's bottom line.

    Jeff, you may know, has another refrain -- WWGD -- What would Google do?

    Media brands need to start thinking more like Google -- instead of focusing on controlling content and page views, they should focus on leveraging the power of the web's network.

    For media brands, counterintuitively, the best way to compete on the web is to collaborate -- the more you link out, the more you get back.

  • Just finished the entire post, which I should have done in the first place -- I stand somewhat corrected.

    While I still bristle at Jarvis's original maxim, the examples you cite are cases where folks have turned it into something entirely new and valuable (something beyond what I've often taken Jarvis's maxim to originally mean). Bravo!

  • I respect Jeff Jarvis for being a gadfly, but I wouldn't take advice from him, mostly because, as a self-defined outsider, he's not exactly in the trenches.

    I agree with his maxim, but only up to a point.

    Here's where he's wrong:

    He's assuming that MSM websites can and should function primarily like blogs. Certainly they should *include* blogs, but at the end of the day content drives traffic, even me-too content. This is why hundreds of sites include AP and Reuters content on their sites instead of just linking to it -- because readers read the content *on that site* and those pageviews go to the parent organization's bottom line.

    In fact, you could argue that the real wave of the future is *syndication* -- i.e. "do what you do best, and syndicate the rest. That way you keep the user on your site. Leave the aggregation to those who do it best -- boingboing et al.

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