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.