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: