February 25th, 2008

How Link Journalism Could Have Transformed The New York Times Reporting On McCain Ethics


I was reading the New York Times public editor’s rebuke of the NYT McCain ethics piece that alleged an affair with a lobbyist, when a line at the end reached out and grabbed me by the collar (bold is mine):

The pity of it is that, without the sex, The Times was on to a good story. McCain, who was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 for exercising “poor judgment” by intervening with federal regulators on behalf of a corrupt savings and loan executive, recast himself as a crusader against special interests and the corrupting influence of money in politics. Yet he has continued to maintain complex relationships with lobbyists like Iseman, at whose request he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to urge a speed-up on a decision affecting one of her clients.

Much of that story has been reported over the years, but it was still worth pulling together to help voters in 2008 better understand the John McCain who might be their next president.

Instead of focusing on unsubstantiated allegations of an affair, how might the NYT have better served readers and voters by “pulling together” a story that has been “reported over the years”? If they took a traditional approached, they would summarize that reporting in their own words, such that readers would only see what could fit in the limited number of column inches available.

But on the web, with its infinite space and connectedness, the Times could have added an important supplement to their own perspective in recounting the history of McCain ethics since 1991:

LINKS to the the actual reporting that has been done over the years.

For the occasion, I’m going to coin a new term: link journalism

It’s what I attempted to describe the other day in the post on Links As News, Links As Reporting.

Link journalism is linking to other reporting on the web to enhance, complement, source, or add more context to a journalist’s original reporting.

As a commenter on my last post observed, link journalism is not new on the web — bloggers have been pioneering it for years — but it is new to many journalists who have been largely focused on the print medium and are just now learning the ways of the web.

So what might the link journalism for that NYT piece on McCain ethics look like? I don’t have the time or resources of the four journalists who reported the original NYT piece, but here are a few links I pulled together on Publish2 (I’m currently displaying these headlines in the sidebar of the Publishing 2.0 blog using our widget).

Time: The Power and The Story
Far from making him more sensitive, the Keating Five scandal was a near death experience that changed the way he saw himself and the system. McCain had been at best a reformer junior grade. In fact, he voted against campaign-reform measures before being sucked into the sewer himself.

Boston.com: Pluck, Leaks Helped Senator to Overcome S&L Scandal
A decade ago, Senator John McCain’s role in the most politically corrosive episode of the $150 billion savings and loan debacle threatened to end a political career that now holds some promise of concluding instead with a McCain presidency.

Star Tribune: Campaign 2000; To compete, McCain takes cash from the very system he abhors
Now, as he runs for president as a white knight crusading to rid politics of “corrupt money,” his campaign’s chase for cash is tinged with irony: He is building relationships that, perhaps unavoidably, rekindle images of his Keating Five days.

BBC News: The gloves come off
In 2000 Republican Primary, the Bush campaign attacked McCain over his 1991 Senate Ethics Committee reprimand.

Arizona Republic: DeConcini’s memoir details tense relationship with McCain
In Senator Dennis DeConcini: From the Center of the Aisle, the former senator reflects on when he, McCain and three other senators were investigated by the Senate ethics committee in 1991.

Reason Magazine: How John McCain Reformed
In 1991 Sen. John McCain was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee for his “poor judgment” in meeting with federal bank regulators who were investigating Arizona businessman Charles Keating, one of his campaign contributors. Ever since then, McCain has been trying to show he is not a hack politician kowtowing to special interests but a man of integrity and principle.

The standard journalistic technique for providing context and support for assertions is to quote sources, but on the web, the “link journalism approach” is to link to other actual reporting.

To support the assertion that concerns over McCain’s ethics have a long back story, which voters in 2008 should know about, what better than actually linking to the body of reporting that covered this story in the past?

Not sufficiently intrigued by this concept? Let me up the ante.

Check out these two articles from the 2000 campaign, the last election cycle when McCain ran:

Boston.com: Pluck, Leaks Helped Senator to Overcome S&L Scandal

Star Tribune: Campaign 2000; To compete, McCain takes cash from the very system he abhors

Oh wait… you can’t. Unless you’re willing to pay for the privilege.

The rationale for paid access to newspaper and other print publication archives is that researchers and other people searching for archived articles for a specific purpose will be willing to pay for them — the archives don’t generate enough traffic to monetize through advertising, so why not charge for them?

A Google News archive search for “McCain Keating” for 2000 reveals lots of reporting potentially relevant to today’s voters, but it’s all locked behind a pay wall:


Well, what if link journalism could transform the newspaper archive from a dusty locked vault to a vibrant, dynamic part of up-to-the-minute news reporting?

Suddenly, a site like Time.com starts look really smart for making available for free this in-depth piece on McCain from December 1999: The Power and The Story

Imagine what link journalism could do to increase traffic to high quality journalism, old and new.

How do you save important journalism? Make it relevant again using the currency for relevancy on the web: links

Oh, speaking of traffic, what about the concern that link journalism will “send people away” from a newsroom’s own original reporting?

Just remember Google’s law of links on the web — the better job you do at sending people away, the more they come back.

Jack Lail at Knoxnews.com has created a regular feature on their Govolsextra.com by aggregating “Blogger Buzz” — these stories that do nothing but “send people away” have been regularly making the top 10 story list:


Jack tells me that one of these Blogger Buzz “send them away” link journalism stories this week was the #1 story on the site.


If you’re an editor or reporter and want to check out the McCain Ethics page I created, you can register for Publish2 and see it here. You can add to it simply by using the tag “McCain Ethics” — here’s the McCain Ethics tag page feed. If you’re interested in joining the Publish2 Election News Network — or using Publish2 for other news aggregation features on your site — email me at scott.karp at publish2 dot com

Comments (23 Responses so far)

  1. Spot on, Scott. As a blogger with a background in traditional journalism (and in marketing communications), I’ve long followed this principle–because I believe the context that influences my comments is important to my readers.

    My blog on the McCain story, for instance (posted last Friday at http://principledprofit.com/good-business-blog/straight-shooter-mccains-crooked-path/2008/02/22/ ), contains links to the Times profile, to a year-old profile of McCain in the Arizona Republic, and to a Poynter Institute critique of the Times piece.

    And I totally agree that there ae better ways to archive journalism–our contemporaneous record of today for the future–behind a pay-per-view wall–especially since in the future, non-electronic copies will be harder to come by, and rarer. What would historians have failed to include in their biographies and histories if they didn’t have access to microfilms of old newspapers?

    Shel Horowitz
    Blogging on the intersections of media, marketing, politics, ethics, and sustainability:

  2. Hi Scott,
    Every once in a while you pull off these brilliant ones. (Ah..you write very well irrespective of these flashes, but these flashes…ah..they’re just superb.).

    Quoting from a recent post of mine:
    The stronger and relevant your niche associations(links to related content, for example), the more your loyal audiences keep coming back to you.
    You’re giving them the content they want, and the perspective they need.

    I think we need to stop thinking about content as being king.
    I think providing wholesome, enriching, nutritious perspectives is the real challenge that content publishers are now facing.

    Content is slowly beginning to get commoditized, as the tools for production and distribution of content become ubiquitous by the day.

    So links are a good first step to solving that problem of perspective. A close second would be personalization.

  3. [...] que vale a pena reter – Jornalismo de ligações (em inglês, “link journalism”) – e um artigo que o [...]

  4. [...] Karp skriver en intressant text om “link-journalistik” hos Publishing2: hur nätet särart förhöjer värdet på en publicerad text och varför *du* ska [...]

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  6. [...] How Link Journalism Could Have Transformed The New York Times Reporting On McCain Ethics [...]

  7. [...] Karp writes about “link journalism” and how it could have saved face for The New York Times in the recent case of using unnamed sources in a story about John McCain and [...]

  8. This issue is much like footnoting, and has been bumped into by both scientific research and legal writing: how to reference past works? The clincher: LINKS BREAK.

    So the concept of “link journalism” is great as a user-interface system and writing style, but unless you can cache the original stories yourself, you can’t depend on the original host to keep it where you want it.


  9. [...] link journalism meme seems to have legs, based on the number of smart people who picked it up. Now it’s time to [...]

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  11. [...] professionals don’t have all day to wade through everything. Here may be where the ideas of link journalism and networked link journalism would come into play.  As they do their research and investigating, [...]

  12. [...] Karp of Publishing 2.0 recently coined the term “link journalism” (basically, hyperlinks in an online article) and explains more here.  What this means for [...]

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  15. [...] links help this? I never knew I’d be talking about link journalism on this site, and yet, I think this is much bigger than we’re letting [...]

  16. :) Great minds think alike – I’ve been talking about ‘link journalism’ for ages on my now defunct blog. I shall have to ressurect the posts because clearly it’s much bigger than any of us realised in the bad old days of complaining about how ‘link love’ didn’t work properly in a journalistic context, and how to make it do so.


  17. [...] come up again though, via Scott Karp – who makes some great points about the fact that link journalism is something, in today’s [...]

  18. [...] writing for the New York Times, describes a trend in newsrooms that are suddenly engaging in ‘link journalism‘ –a newly minted term for something we have been practicing for years, to substantiate, [...]

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  20. [...] news links from multiple sources to enhance reporting is quickly gaining the moniker of “link journalism“, a phase coined by Scott Karp at [...]

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  22. [...] fact, linking can be its own form of journalism, which Scott Karp calls link journalism. The Drudge Report isn’t the best example of this, but it’s the most well-known, so [...]

  23. [...] this is Jarvis’ New Rule: Cover what you do best. Link to the rest. Scott Karp calls this link journalism. If you focus on what your audience would be most interested in – regardless of whether or not you [...]

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