October 13th, 2008

Nervous About Link Journalism? Ignore Web’s ‘Cesspool’ And Tap Its ‘Natural Spring’


There are several reasons why most mainstream news organizations have been slow to embrace link journalism.

First, news orgs typically act as though other news orgs don’t exist (blame long-standing notions of “owning” the news, and more recent unjustified fears of sending readers away). Second, news orgs had few mechanisms for breaking out of that walled-garden mentality online — for finding good stories among the web’s reaches, and delivering those stories to readers — even if they wanted to.

But there’s a third, more fundamental, barrier to linking: Many journalists worry about the wild wild web.

As Carolyn Washburn commented on my post about a link-based newswire,

We need to ensure a process by which we understand the sources of the content, the understanding that not all links are created equal. We need to guarantee the expertise. The standards those sources apply for balance and news judgment.

Robert Fisk was blunter in a recent lecture:

“To hell with the web, it’s got no responsibility.”

It’s true that there’s lots of unverifiable garbage online (which journalists’ networked editorial judgment can nonetheless help filter from the good stuff). What many people tend to forget is that the web also makes accessible basically every reputable news outlet and thinker on the planet. Think of all that as the Internet’s natural spring — the total-information flipside to Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s “cesspool.”

A typical newspaper may draw from two or three dozen sources, depending on which wire services it uses. In contrast, there are conservatively more than 2,000 newspapers, magazines, and web sites (e.g. Slate, Talking Points Memo, Washington Independent, journalists’ blogs) in the U.S. alone that newspapers could link to without worry.

Add blogs written by academics (e.g. Balkinization on law, Language Log on language, Marginal Revolution on economics) and think-tankers, and that number is probably more like 2,500 to 3,000.

Nervous news organizations can embrace link journalism by tapping the spring — they don’t have to dip even one editorial toe into the cesspool. (Hooray for stretched metaphors!)

Don’t think that’s worth it? Consider Talking Points Memo: Josh Marshall and his crew didn’t own the U.S. Attorney story (and win a George Polk award) by linking to cranks and anonymous message boards. They did it by supplementing their own reporting with links to other mainstream news organizations and to documents, legislators’ letters, etc.

Yes, we need to encourage ethics, trust, and transparency on the web. These standards are what turn linking into link journalism, and they will become ever more important as the power of the press spreads among millions of citizens.

But the cesspool isn’t all-consuming. And it shouldn’t discourage journalists from linking today.

  • Link Journalism has the potential to help a website more than hurt it. With the new generation of Web 2.0 users, people visit websites like Digg and Reddit to search the web. People keep going back to these websites because they use it as a navigation tool. If news websites were able to tap into this growing industry, they could increase number of visits to their websites. People trust news sources to find and report news. This concept goes hand-and-hand with Link Journalism. It may build the trust with news website even more because people would feel the company is being transparent and honest.

    Google News is a direct example of providing links to send people away. But, instead, people keep coming back for more. Also, Drudge Report is another great example of linking out and it's has very high traffic numbers.

  • Ted,

    Check out Pat Thornton's blog. He has proposed an "online ethics seal" along these lines.

  • “To hell with the web, it’s got no responsibility.”

    That's actually a fair criticism. I think the web needs a good-housekeeping seal of approval from a group of online publishers. Kind of like a security certificate qualifies a website to run an SSL (https) secure server.

    To qualify, you would need to be responsible for your comments. That might include having your true name and contact information attached to your posts.

  • Carolyn,

    I apologize if I came across as dismissive of your questions. That wasn't my intention.

    I cited your original comment not to criticize, but to say that this is a common and legitimate concern – whether voiced artfully like you did, or bluntly like Robert Fisk did -- and to offer one way to think about how to address that concern.

    I should have been clearer in my above comment: I disagree with Tim that journalists who avoid linking, or who link but still have legitimate questions about it, are "cranks." I'm not of the "screw the curmudgeons" school of thought -- not least because there are far fewer true curmudgeons than this school's adherents believe.

    That said, I am frustrated by the pace of change. My response to Tim's comment was an attempt to split the difference between the anti-"curmudgeon" (scare quotes intentional) camp and the camp that doesn't pretend it has easy answers. If the word "stragglers" was inartful on my part, I guess it shows that I'm a little more frustrated than I like to admit.

    I totally agree that we don't need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and with your point about efficiency; indeed, the purpose of my new-AP post was to propose exactly the kind of new service you suggest.

    I do think, however, that quality link journalism can be done with minimal cost – whether via a one-person link feed like The Wire (free), or a collaborative effort tapping the collective editorial judgment of thousands of journalists (where the cost is the small amount of time each journalist spends adding to the collective or drawing from it).

  • We're working with dozens of newspapers. Explaining link journalism is simple. Every story needs two credible sources.

    1. Link those sources.
    2. Filter for credible to avoid the cesspool.

    What's the anxiety?


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