August 7th, 2008

How Newsrooms Throw Away Value By Not Linking To Sources On The Web

by

A lot of research can go into a piece of reporting, and in print the value of that research can only be passed on through brief quotes or references. But on the web, no longer limited by finite column inches, newsrooms can create huge value for readers by providing links to the source material that journalists have gathered.

Want some proof that readers value these links to reference material? Nick Carr has been getting requests for links to all of the interesting source material he used in his Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” — enough to prompt him to post those reference links on his blog.

The question is, why now, only after readers made their interest known, and why on his blog and not at TheAtlantic.com, where the article is published?

I’ve heard of journalists whose practice is to research a story on the web, print out the source material, reference that source material in the article, and then literally throw that printed source material away after they’ve filed the story.

How can newsrooms, in an age of swiftly declining editorial resources, afford to throw valuable material away? And this is material that they PAID FOR by paying a journalist to research a story. Editors should be demanding that journalists provide links to source material to include with the web version of a story.

Of course, “web version” hints at the problem, because most editorial workflows are still built around print publishing and so are blind to all of the web value being figuratively left on the cutting room floor or literally tossed in the trash.

The other issue here is the “ethic of the link.”

The Atlantic created economic value for itself by Nick’s effort to synthesize a great many sources. In fact, Nick’s article on TheAtlantic.com has an astounding 38,000+ inbound links. But they’ve given very little value back to the web ecosystem, with only a handful of links in the article. I managed to get a link to Publishing 2.0 by being a squeaky wheel, but that shouldn’t be necessary.

That said, I still think the larger problem here is one of process rather than web sensibility. I know that Nick and the Atlantic editors understand the value of links. Nick is a prolific linker on his blog, and his latest book, The Big Switch, is packed with interesting reference notes and URLs at the end.

The problem is that the editorial workflow for most newsrooms doesn’t include a process whereby journalists can collect source links as part of their research process and provide them as work product to be published on the web along with the article.

(Shameless plug + disclosure: We’ve built just such a system into Publish2, to integrate the gathering and publishing of links into existing editorial workflows — and it’s free to journalists and news organizations, so there’s no “we can’t afford it” barrier.)

As Jay Rosen explains in this video, understanding the value of links, and how they connect content, ideas, and people, is fundamental to understanding the value of the web. And understanding the value of the web is the key to unlocking the new business models that journalism needs to survive and thrive in the digital age:

  • This is a great topic, Scott, as something I ask myself over and over and over.

    Let's switch from large newspapers and magazines to the smaller publications, specifically the community rags.

    I live in a small city of 17,000 people in northeastern Massachusetts and the daily newspaper is likely both short-staffed and link-ignorant to care. I care less about external links, though those help too. What about linking to topical posts, such as if a company is mentioned to do what the NY Times does and link to a page that shows every story with that content?

    But that's not the end of my gripe. Earlier this year, the paper initiated a Disqus-powered commenting ability on every story. But the paper's staff never interact with the people who comment, so it turns into a free-for-all.

    I'm eager to help the paper out; maybe they're merely ignorant and once shown the light of linking they can help themselves, but is my wannabe action worthwhile?

  • Apart from the irony of embedding loads of links in an article about how Web surfing is making us stupid, the more obvious drawback with links is their ephemeral nature. This is starting to change with the growing popularity of blogs, but is still true for many if not most Web sources.

    The style of most Web pages is 'revision' rather than 'accumulation'. So information at the end of a link may change or disappear altogether. Blogs, on the other hand, promote a cumulative style of information, with growing archives from which past posts can be retrieved.

  • Paul, there are a few bad practices driving those over linked blog posts. One is linking to multiple examples of the same thing. Another is linking to another blogger to back up a point, i.e. this guy agrees with me, but not really as a useful reference.

    And as for those internal links to generic reference pages, there is a method to that madness -- let's just say those links aren't intended for human consumptions.

  • Scott, good point about paternalism. Readers are generally far more sophisticated than publishers give them credit for.

    I was more referring to the practice of some bloggers to link almost every other word in their posts. It can lead to a bewildering overload of information that needs to be processed, even if just to decide not to explore it.

    Another annoying technique is when (generally large) publishers link names to generic information pages such as wikipedia or their own reference pages. This is fine for more obscure names, but I'm a great believer in link efficiency - only linking to content that advances an article/post rather than linking because you can or to bump up page views on your own site.

    I'm sure this will be ironed out as digital media evolves.

  • McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy is the first blog, albeit in the old print form. The chapters are "posts," full of links (and quotes) to his sources. Norman O. Brown did the same thing in Love's Body. Brown, in a preface, said: "Thanks to the publishers, a page has been designed which, by including the references in the body of the text, is a perpetual acknowledgement of my indebtedness to a very great company, both living and dead: my authorities, my authors." What they could have done with blogs! Both books contain over nine pages of bibliography. Reading the books in hand is still a different reading experience, to Carr's point, but the idea of the link is there, and serves the same purpose, and if these books were published on line today, with links to all the references (assuming they would also be available), I don't think the end result would be stupid.

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