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Dec. 3, 2008, midnight

Frank Rich: Why I link

In the web version of his most recent column, The New York Times’ Frank Rich squeezed 32 links among his 1,560 words. The mere presence of links might not seem so notable — except that only one of the Times’ 10 other op-ed columnists had included even a single link in his or her most recent piece.

Not Brooks nor Cohen nor Collins nor Dowd nor Friedman nor Herbert nor Kristof nor Kristol nor Krugman. (The lone exception: Charles M. Blow, whom the Times calls its “visual Op-Ed columnist.”)

Why has Rich embraced linking when his peers have not? “The theory was: Why not be as transparent as possible by showing sources, when we could?” he told me recently.

That’s a philosophy followed by much of the rest of the Internet; it’s the very foundation of blogging. But most newspapers — including their top columnists — haven’t signed on.

At The Los Angeles Times, the most recent work of its seven featured opinion columnists included not a single link. At The Washington Post, columns by stalwarts like Richard Cohen and E.J. Dionne Jr. will often feature links, but only to internal Post topic pages, not to external sources. (There are occasional exceptions, like this Cohen column. And Anne Applebaum links Rich-like.)

Rich says his linking is as much about backing up his argument as it is about adding background. If one’s argument is only as good as one’s facts, Rich sends you to his facts. “Now, sometimes it’s unlinkable material,” he says. “But why not give the reader, if he or she wants to, the opportunity to see the sources, or a source, when it’s available? It helps bulletproof the column, because if they say ‘He must be making that up,’ they can look and see — here’s the source, take a look and judge it for yourself….If I’m citing a figure, at the most banal level, from the Labor Department or a poll or an economic report, [why not] link to the whole document it comes from?”

Rich’s Nov. 16 column linked material within The Times six times, with two links each to CNN, Slate.com, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post. As to the old bromide about never wanting to send readers away from your site, Rich says he’s never taken that view. He links regularly to competing media outlets like The Washington Post, MSNBC, and Fox News. “Clearly, there will be a lot of citations from The Times because of the kind of paper it is, but I don’t have to have any from The Times.”

He says the initiative to link was his own. “Columnists at The Times are free agents,” Rich says. “For example, some columnists are blogging, which I am not. We each make our own decisions…Whatever practices [those on the news side] use about linking news stories…is a whole separate bureaucracy I have nothing to do with.”

Adding links, he says, “came about very informally…I’d say the biggest single breakthrough was to realize, as my assistant Benjamin Toff realized, we have the capability to insert links into the pieces easily, electronically…without going through the bureaucracy. If every link had to go through a bureaucratic procedure that was time-consuming on deadline, we couldn’t do it.

Reading Rich’s column online is a different experience than in paper and ink, and I can imagine some arguments a columnist might offer for not linking. They might see thirty links as thirty opportunities to be sidetracked. Larding an opinion piece with links potentially pushes the balance of the effort from persuasion to proof. Or they might argue a column constructed with an eye toward linking indirectly diminishes the version of the work in print. The counter-arguments come from people like Publishing 2.0’s Scott Karp, who wrote an interesting piece last summer arguing that newspapers throw away potential value by avoiding linking, and Jeff Jarvis, who has written about adding a “link layer” to the news.

Rich says he does see the links as optional added value. “To me as a writer, the most important thing is to have the column stand alone,” he told me. “Believe it or not, there are still a lot of readers who still read the column on paper.” Linking, he says, is “extracurricular activity for those who want it and have the time to indulge in it.”

In choosing his links, he tries to stay specific and useful. “As a reader, I can’t stand the links where if the link is ‘Barack Obama,’ and you click the link and it’s Barack Obama’s official campaign page. It’s useless because any sentient person who knows how to use the Internet doesn’t need that link to figure out how to get a motherlode of information about a proper name in a piece of journalism…So the feeling I’ve always had is let’s get the links as specific as possible instead of something generic.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s limited to strict factual reference. “Sometimes we have fun with the links. Either Ben or I might say, ‘It would be hilarious to show a YouTube video to illustrate Ted Stevens making a fool of himself.’ Or if we’re talking about a public official who’s contradicting himself left and right, and, say, Josh Marshall has done a TPM video that’s an amusing recap of it, we’ll link to it even if it’s not mentioned in the column, just to give readers who care a laugh.”

POSTED     Dec. 3, 2008, midnight
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