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.

Comments (10 Responses so far)

  1. I’m puzzled and frustrated by these negative reactions, and frankly amazed at your patient dedicated to push these cranks into the future.

    Despite the mask of concern for “journalistic integrity” I am having trouble seeing these comments as anything but knee-jerk reactions borne of fear and ignorance. (I want to believe otherwise, I do.)

    Would anyone seriously warn people off the grocery store produce section because the apple bins sometimes contain rotten fruit? No, you tell people to dig in there, examine their apple to make sure it passes muster, and put it in their basket. Works for millions of people every day.

    I think the problem here is that we are still allowing people who have little intention of becoming leaders in this new frontier to control the conversation.

    Finding something good to link to is trivial — no matter your subject or frequency. I mean, seriously.

    The only way there could be a problem is if all you’re looking for is a automated lip-service solution that does all the work for you.

    Link journalism only works if it’s an editor-driven effort. It’s 100% about curating, and yes, that takes a person and it takes work.

    There are thousands of journalists (and bloggers, oh my!) happily doing this job every day. They are laying the groundwork for the future, and they will reap the benefits.

    The longer you stay on the sidelines arguing, the more years you’re shaving off your career.

  2. Unfortunately, there is another very real reason that many mainstream news organizations have not embraced link journalism: REVENUE.

    Especially with the the current turmoil that newspapers are facing, there is a fear that sending people away translates to losing page views. That translates to lost revenue, which translates to lost jobs.

    I’m not sure if this fear is holding back news organizations or individual reporters and editors. Which begs the question: is the use of financial criteria to make decisions about reporting unethical?

  3. Tim,

    I totally understand the frustration. I guess I lean toward patience for a couple of reasons.

    While part of the reluctance to get with the link program is definitely straight-up fear and ignorance, a big part is structural.

    It starts with the entrenched mindsets I describe in the post. Then factor in that many newspapers’ in-house publishing systems are geared toward print, or toward a circa-2000 print-first view of the web (though that’s increasingly changing). They’re not built on, say, a blogging platform that makes linking an easy and central part of web publishing — and newsrooms don’t tend to swap out publishing platforms in a flash. Wire services are also built with print in mind.

    So we’re talking about getting an entire industry to re-examine its way of thinking and operating. Which is obviously necessary as news becomes web-focused, but it’s also hard. Tens of thousands of individuals, thousands of institutions, a whole industry — cultural and structural change on that level is slow going (just ask the auto industry). I wish they’d go faster, and the economic situation is going to force them to do just that, but the pace is going to be slow.

    The other reason I’m patient is because I’d prefer that the 2,000-plus news organizations I reference in the post survive in some form.

    You’re right that the journalists and bloggers who are already linking will reap the benefits in the future. But all of us — local residents, the newsosphere at large, American democracy — will reap the benefits if the slow-moving news orgs adapt and survive, and we’ll be worse off if they don’t. Maybe not much worse off, as new models of journalism will certainly fill in the gaps. But at the least, losing the institutional memory and watchdog power of thousands of news orgs would be a loss. (And of course the individuals who lose their jobs in that scenario would be far worse off.)

    To me, that’s worth trying to coax the stragglers along rather than throwing up our hands and writing them off.

  4. I want to clear. I am not opposed to link journalism. We do it. We have done it the print version for years, finding the smartest sources in our state and community to write directly on our pages and sometimes to publish from their personal works. We give readers access to documents, aggregate others’ blogs, etc. We also publish and link to some stuff my readers would call cesspool material, but I do it because there is value in the broadest possible conversation in our community.

    My comment was in response to the broader piece about whether the world still needs AP. I just want to raise the caution that we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or to think that it won’t cost anything to provide link journalism in a quality way. In fact, for the sake of efficiency for small news organizations around the world, there may be value in an AP or new services like it to do some of the work of tapping the natural spring for them.

    I also hope that that we are open to questions about yours and others’ ideas, and that any attempt to participate in finding the new way doesn’t get you labeled a crank or a straggler. We need everyone embraced in the discussion.

  5. 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?


  6. [...] contenuti ma anche agendo da gatekeeper, filtrando le notizie a favore dei netizen. Hanno smesso di temere che il lettore si diriga verso altri siti, verso altri contenitori di notizie e di pubblicità, [...]

  7. 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).

  8. “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.

  9. Ted,

    Check out Pat Thornton’s blog. He has proposed an “online ethics seal” along these lines.

  10. 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.

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