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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Why won’t news sites link?

It’s a great story. A magician posts videos of him shipping himself to Vegas from upstate New York via UPS. The Feds investigate. Turns out it’s a hoax and a publicity stunt. Hilarity ensues.

So far, so good. But you’re reading this online. What’s your first thought?

Right: Where’s the video?

You won’t find it in the AP retelling on the Newsday.com site.

You won’t find a link to the YouTube preview, or the special microsite set up to detail the fake journey.

You won’t find the links in the original story, in which the Syracuse Post-Standard is punked by the magician. (You will find the non-linked name of the web site, a sure sign that this is an automated port of a newspaper story)

And you won’t find them in the follow-up story on the Post-Standard either.

I’m picking on this one story, but it’s typical of far too many news web site stories that have obvious link potential: You won’t find links there.

For instance, why, in a column called “On Blogs,” which mentions ten online tools for Twitter, are none of those tools linked? And yet, in that same article, there are CMS-supplied robolinks to Britney Spears, Lance Armstrong and Al Gore, among others.

Is it stubbornness? Lack of training? Inertia? Not enough time? Back-end systems not optimized for linking?

Reporters blog. Reporters podcast. Reporters build mashups, tweet, create tumblogs, shoot video, host meetups. Everything but link. Why is the notion of link journalism still not taking root this many years into the transition from print to digital?

Yes, things are better than they were when newspapers first toddled online in 1995, but not much. More papers are launching aggregation strategies. Many reporters do link, some of them consistently, but overall, reporters-as-linkers remain a minority. And you’ll find the best examples of active linking happening on newspaper blogs, not in news articles, which are often lousy with robolinks, but surprisingly free of relevant hooks, even to sites mentioned in the article.

Think I’m exaggerating? Go to Google News and search for “helpful web site.” You might be disappointed.

And beyond the frustration it creates for readers, who come to news sites looking for utility, the missing link is an easy SEO opportunity, lost.

Whatever the reason, the missing link has to stop being a hallmark of newspaper-related sites. Is your organization doing something to encourage more linking? Talk about how you got there in the comments. And be sure to include links!

                                   
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  • http://www.john-zhu.com/blog John Zhu

    I agree w/ the frustration about lack of links in newspaper stories. It does leave the visitor wanting when a newspaper story online mentions a site/story but does not link to it. I think part of it is lack of time. One of my former papers, which used to be about 50k, has zero Web staff. The desk manually uploads stories and updates the pages after putting out the paper each night, and one person does some occasional updates throughout the day. You can imagine how good an arrangement that is for the quality of the site, especially as the staff shrinks and responsibilities increase. Some other papers have systems that automatically pull published stories from the system and place them online, but since those stories, more often than not, were written for the print edition first, there are no links embedded in them, which means someone would have to go back, read through the stories, and figure out what’s link-worthy and add the links.

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  • http://www.timwindsor.com/ Tim Windsor

    John,

    There are definitely systemic and workflow issues at play. Until a decision is made that links are important, they’ll continue to be rare.

    It would help if the newspaper publishing systems were link-aware and could make it easier for the reporter or the copy desk to embed the URL within the story so it would be automatically parsed when published to the web.

  • http://www.reinventingthenewsroom.com Jason Fry

    I suspect in most places the problem is the one John Zhu identifies: For the most part, I bet you’re seeing repurposed print content put online by a strapped night staff (or a doubly strapped day staff) with editing-and-publishing software that doesn’t give them much if any help. Too many papers lack systems that let journalists be journalists, and so the paper-to-Web flow is either automated and dumb or manual and exhausting. (It was the latter at my old shop — we had a full night crew of passionate folks, but they spent their nights shoving rocks uphill and so missed opportunities.)

    Having stories made for the Web that let logical things go unlinked, on the other hand, is just inexcusable.

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  • Zachary M. Seward

    At The New York Times, which is frequently criticized for not linking out, the boat seems to be slowly turning around. Yesterday’s A1 piece from China had several helpful links, including to the YouTube videos it was about. And a story inside metro today has a bunch of links as well.

    CMS is a big issue. Here’s another one: There’s a different writing style on the web, where you can drop in a link for readers to follow if they aren’t familiar with a term or want more information. Without that luxury in print, your writing has to cover more ground. So if you’re running the same story in print and online, I think you have to add links after the fact to ensure everything’s still there for print readers. Of course, it’s still important and worth it. —Zach

  • http://www.mediaslackers.com/blog MediaSlackers

    I agree that back-end systems play a roll some of the time, but that doesn’t mean it is excusable. Certainly there are systems out there capable of adding links when publishing offline content to your online system. (I apologize, but my knowledge does not go this far.) However, I think the problem is ideological rather than technical at heart. It is encouraging to hear the NY Times turning around, but as I cited today, E&P doesn’t even link to the E&P blog when trying to promote it on its own website. Instead, it has just pasted the full URL. You’d think this would be pretty simple stuff…

  • http://blogs.journalism.co.uk/editors/ JTownend

    I find it incredibly frustrating when something’s described but I have to go and find it for myself. It should be done as a matter of course, like academic journals cite references.

    I’m also not sure how I feel about the Guardian’s technique of linking occasional keywords e.g ‘chefs’ ‘bbc’ to their own stories about that keyword. Sometimes it’s useful but most the time all I really want is to see the specific link to the exact reference – on an external site, or their own story if relevant.

    It’s not just print stories which aren’t linked, it’s stories which were only ever written for the web too.

    Linking is so quick, and most publications are now open to linking, so why’s it not being done?

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  • http://www.patthorntonfiles.com/blog Patrick Thornton

    Umm, I think I have the real question here: Why are newspapers still going from print (the slow medium) to the Web (the fast medium)? That’s the root of the problem.

    A logical workflow would be to go from Web to print or to have a platform agnostic approach to creating content. All the examples cited above are where news organizations lazily push content from print to the Web. That’s the real problem here.

    Now yes, they could still go in and add links after they push their old content from print to the Web, but they would have a much better workflow in the first place (and links would be naturally addressed in this workflow) if they just took the Web more seriously.

    Poor linking practices are a symptom, not the disease.

  • http://www.lectroid.net Marc Matteo

    Actually Patrick the problem is deeper. Most newspaper *editing* applications don’t have a linking mechanism either.

    At my shop I’m trying to get stories slated for the web prior to them being placed on a print page and I know full well there will be no links, because our editing tools — yes designed for print — don’t know what a link is.

    We could add that functionality I suppose, but with staffing and budget cuts that won’t happen anytime soon.

  • http://www.mediaslackers.com/blog MediaSlackers

    Marc – Why is it that your execs don’t ask themselves the age old question: What came first? The chicken or the egg? How on earth do they expect to get into the black if they aren’t willing to make such a simple investment as to bring your technology into this century? I’m sure you hold this frustration as well, but the fundamental approach is entirely backwards.

  • http://www.publish2.com Scott Karp

    Having talked to many newsrooms about linking, the problem at this point is much more about antiquated publishing systems than an inability to recognize the value of linking.

    I’ve given a lot of talks on “link journalism” to newsrooms, and I don’t really encounter any objections — mostly nodding heads. Many newsrooms are actively working on enhancing their use of links.

    And most reporter who blog actually do use links effectively — but that has a lot to do with it being easy to do so in WordPress or Movable Type.

    But when those same reporters submit copy for the print newspaper (which is still what most reporters in most newsroom do most of the time), there is simply no mechanism for including links.

    Publish2 is developing a new feature that will make it easy for reporters to add links to articles (via a bit of code added to the standard article template). Our goal is to make linking easy, even with an old, outdated CMS.

    In talking about journalists linking, we should clearly separate technical barriers (which can be overcome) from attitudinal barriers (which are already being overcome).

  • http://www.magicnewswire.com Magic Newswire

    Great article! I’ve run into similar issues at MagicNewswire.com. We also posted an interview with Wade regarding the stunt for those interested in more on the original story.

  • http://www.joeruiz.net Joe Ruiz

    I don’t know that it’s an attitude issue in my newsroom, it’s technical.

    The reporters that have links are willing to provide them to me, but since I write their stories for the Web (TV news site), I have to add their links into the copy. It’s certainly not discouraged (I don’t discourage myself), even if to a competitor if they have the information we can’t confirm.

    I’ve never had complaints from readers about linking too much.

    It’s all a technical issue. Our CMS doesn’t allow for easy linking, although it’s easy in the sense that I can code a link and have it work well. Plus, since I’m writing new content, it’s just a matter of having the link available.

    I do wish more news outlets linked to the content. I see it not just as providing easier access to information, but a way of fact-checking our stories.

  • http://www.timwindsor.com/ Tim Windsor

    Scott (and others who’ve made similar points),

    I think you’re right that there’s general agreement among journalists that linking is a good thing. That, in itself, is a leap forward, thanks largely to the tireless promotion of the value of the link, both inside and outside of the newsroom.

    And it would be great if there were easier tools to use for linking.

    But if there were general agreement among journalists that proper spelling is a noble goal, but copy editors never bothered to correct misspellings and typos, that would be an awfully empty goal, wouldn’t it?

    Same goes here. Despite the hurdles, if this was seen as truly important, it would be done. That linking isn’t happening on a more widespread basis says to me that it’s seen as a “nice to have” not a “must have.”

  • http://www.patthorntonfiles.com Patrick Thornton

    @Tim,

    I agree. The fact that in 2009 that most newspapers don’t do much linking clearly means they don’t value it that much. If they did, they would be doing it.

    Back to my workflow point; I don’t think they most newsrooms are that interested in trying to correct their workflow issues either. Print first does not make sense. It simply foments massive inefficiencies.

    The fact that most newsrooms haven’t addressed these workflow issues tells me that most really think print should be first. That it is the core product. That Web, mobile, etc are second- and third-class citizens.

  • http://www.malcolmcoles.co.uk malcolm coles

    Perhaps this is just the flipside of many newspapers (in the UK at least) having a ‘you are not allowed to deep link to our website’ policy: http://www.malcolmcoles.co.uk/blog/newspapers-no-linking-to-us/

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  • http://blog.syracuse.com/newstracker Brian Cubbison

    Tim, you and the commenters raise an issue that should be getting more discussion, and it’s interesting that you pick the magician story as an example. The Post-Standard actually blogs stories before they appear in the paper, and those stories have links, and the video was even embedded.

    http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2009/03/local_magician_i_sent_myself_t.html

    Follow-up stories were blogged, with links.

    http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2009/03/feds_investigate_claim_of_mans.html

    I suspect many papers have such a two-track path: The automatic overnight “dump” from the paper and the link-active blog post. At the Post-Standard, the blog post comes first. The story for the paper goes online later, after making its trip through pagination and typesetting software. Many times I’ve tried to figure out a way to get an active hyperlink to survive the trip through pagination and typesetting. It’s also a lament of ours that stories for the paper go online without their related photos or sidebars.

    But we are in the midst of creating that reverse-publishing system that promises to address some of these issues. Also, however, we continue to try to develop surf-savvy and link-savvy editors, reporters and columnist, and our work isn’t done.

  • Tom Davidson

    Brian – A fine point. But it strikes me as a little too much like the line I used to use (and my reporters used on me): “Well, I reported it … there in the 27th graf of that story from last week.”

    If you’re blogging and embedding stuff in the blog – then why bother posting the shovelware story? It only confuses the consumer (and the Googlebot).

    Do it once. Do it right.

    Yes, the technical issues are daunting. So was moving from hot type to front-end systems.

    Let’s get it done. Nice post, TW.

  • http://www.badische-zeitung.de kus

    great post!

    one week ago, we published this little posting in our paper’s blog. The Message:
    Yes, we DO link (even on our homepage)

    http://blogs.badische-zeitung.de/redaktionsblog/2009/03/ja-wir-verlinken-auch-auf-der-startseite/

  • John S.

    First: Blogging reporters are reporters wasting time they should be using to work their beats. Blogging columnists are not crafting fine pieces, just churning crap. Old-line columnists save their best stuff, instinctively, for what’s going to run in the paper. Blogging dilutes the talent of journalists and detracts from their fundamental mission. Thanks new world order.
    Second: If you are trying to keep readers at your site, why offer a million links to send them elsewhere? To add context to their experience? What are the chances of a reader coming back to your site to read more once you’ve linked them in to the addictive world of Youtube? What a journalism site needs to do far more than worrying about whether it is offering links is actually doing the hard work of reporting on the world. I realize I am considered old-school and probably outdated, but I think a lot of the new models of thinking are a lot of bullshit. They create scattered minds that can’t focus; they foster a lack of rigor in thinking by making the mechanics of the move too important in the learning chain. Popping from a written article to a video on Youtube is not fostering any serious thinking; it’s just delivering eye candy. I think this rapid kind of leaping about is ideal for the male mind because it mimics the short-order thrills and ultimate emptiness of pornography. All you futurists out there who have read this can resume all self-congratulatory backslapping.

  • http://almightylink.ksablan.com/ Kevin Sablan

    To answer the question in this post’s headline/title (not to defend or excuse) I think many newsroom CMSs use Word or Word-inspired editors to write/edit articles. Although it isn’t hard to add a link in Word, that program wasn’t built with Web publishing in mind. Blogging tools were.

    I know more than a few reporters who have happily embraced linking in their WordPress-powered blogs, but don’t add links to their CMS-published stories because of what is perceived as a difficult workflow.

  • http://www.timwindsor.com/ Tim Windsor

    John S.:

    Thanks for commenting, but with all due respect, I think you’ll be much happier staying with print all the way down.

    Once a news organization steps onto the web, it has to play by the rules of the web. And Rule Number One is that people move around. Even the proverbial reporter’s mother views more sites than just MySonsNewspaper.com. You can no more “keep readers at your site” than you can convince them that it’s more efficient and fun to model their breathing rhythms on the bass line of “All The Single Ladies.”

    And when did source materials become mere “eye candy?” Sure, the magician-in-a-box story linkage would be lightweight, but so too is the story itself. Would you not link to Pentagon documents, or minutes of a City Council meeting or video of the game-winning basket?

  • John S.

    Thank you for having me, Tim…

    I believe the better question to ask than “Why won’t news sites link?” is “Is there work any good?”
    The premise of this lab is to create a discussion about how to help news organizations navigate and succeed in the online world. I believe, however, we are moving way ahead of ourselves and risking abandoning standards that must be emphasized over and over at the foundation level of the new enterprise, or they will wind up being discarded or forgotten. We must tell the story under the best of journalistic standards, complete with proper editing and fact-checking. The foundation of good journalism must remain good journalism, not the raw extras we can attach. Of course, a link to the Pentagon papers provides utility and value, but a basketball story that links the name of the schools to their home Web sites does not. I have seen news articles on the Web littered, reflexively, with links to nearly everything in the body of the text and they are annoying and leading down paths only tangentially germane to the story. Complaints about the lack of these offers of often superfluous digression strike me as being like reviews I’ve read of DVDs that wonder why the release of such and such great film doesn’t offer a lot of bonus material. Does the interview with the director, the short on the making of, the unused ending, the outtakes, etc., really enhance the experience of, say, “The Godfather”? I’d love to know how old you are and how many hours you spend a day at the desktop and whether you think that is a good thing. Lord knows I’m on here too long. The Internet can feed obsession, compulsion, ADD, and all sorts of those kinds of human mind issues.
    Rule Number One may be that people move around, but they will do so whether you provide them links or not within a story. I believe word-based news sites need to redouble their focus on the critical mission especially when forced to — not offered — a new delivery system: First-rate reporting and writing, and, yes, grammar. Links better have a deep connection to the story — like the Pentagon Papers — because otherwise they are just another time suck.

  • http://www.timwindsor.com/ Tim Windsor

    John S.

    Agreed with the substance of your most recent comment. As I note in the original post, you’re more likely to find unrelated “robolinks” to seemingly random places (actually, just words or phrases that happen to be in the CMS’s autolink database) than actual links to the true content of any particular article.

    You can see this today in a prominent Business section article from my local paper:

    http://is.gd/nrnv

    The article is about three financial-advice web sites. None of them is linked. But you will find baffling robolinks to The New York Times and Portland, Oregon.

    The article has a photo embedded, which means a web producer took the time to add it. But nobody thought it would also be a good idea to make links to the subject matter of the story.

    Back to your comment, random links are not good journalism. Targeted, relevant links — I’d argue — are.

    I hope we’ve found some common ground on that point.

    :-)

  • John S.

    Yep, we have.

    By the way, to unmask, I recently was dropped without goodbyes after eight years as a contract reporter with The Washington Post. I am deeply passionate about the news industry on both a political and personal level. I believe it ranks as critical in the hierarchy of pillars of a free society. If I can contribute to the conversation for its betterment, that makes me happy. You have a wonderful forum. I think I would have needed to wear sharper clothing to get the opportunity to pitch in ideas at some of the places I have worked. I am deeply disappointed in the major newspaper organizations of this country because, although blindsided by the rise of the Internet, they squandered their greatest assets — massed content and institutional knowledge — and all too willingly commited suicide. It didn’t help that there was a gleeful, concerted effort on the Right, beginning with Gingrich and continuing on to the loudmouth of Limbaugh and others, to bury the industry under an avalanche of accusation for being the tool of liberals. The polarization of the populace in this country did newspapers no favor, but their corporate, bottom-line abdication of responsibility to cover the damn news — developing pathetic, snarky blogs while pulling the statehouse and zoning meeting reporter — sealed their fate. I hope from the ashes rises something with teeth that resumes the watchdog role. It’s saddening to watch Jon Stewart being held up as the beacon of speaking truth to power. There is a strong drive under way to disperse the coverage of our world to citizen journalists and niche bloggers, where everyone has a say. “Here comes everybody,” though, is my worst nightmare because the layers of vetting, the experienced editing, the institutional knowledge and strength will be missing because we will have broken off into tribes of self-interest rather than pushing with the strength of community for leaders across both political and business spectrums to feel compelled to answer to the people. That community strength was represented in and by newspapers and now it is all but gone. Sure, there are plenty of commentators out there, but the hard work of investigative journalism has lost its champions. It’s a helluva good time to be a crook in America.
    Thanks for the dialogue
    – John Scheinman

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  • TMS

    I agree that back-end systems play a roll some of the time, but that doesn’t mean it is excusable. Certainly there are systems out there capable of adding links when publishing offline content to your online system. (I apologize, but my knowledge does not go this far.) However, I think the problem is ideological rather than technical at heart. It is encouraging to hear the NY Times turning around, but as I cited today, E&P doesn’t even link to the E&P blog when trying to promote it on its own website. Instead, it has just pasted the full URL. You’d think this would be pretty simple stuff…

  • http://www.frapple.com Mike Bazelewick

    Newspaper websites have the power to be the largest internet portals on the planet … they just haven’t figured it out. Direct linking to articles, updates, additional photos, late scores etc. can be real simple with “keyord” links that appear in print and are typed at the newspapers homepage. Typically the print edition tags a story, for more information visit our website.com. Right, I’ll jump on it and spend 20 minutes searching … where a keyword typed on the newspaper homepage spawns the webpage asssociated with offline content. Providing a print keyword to a utube video … that is entered at the newspapers homepage, makes too much sense. Yet the smart editors have been told by even smarter and older IT types, that it’s not good to link away from our website. Crap man, the only reason they came to the newspaper homepage was to enter a keyword link … think it might even enhance the reader experience? Newspapers will continue to die unless they come up with a meaningful convergence strategy. Why not keyword links to movie trqailers in the entertainment section … or keywords to television trailers or past episodes … the possibilities are only limited by imagination … and sadly haven’t seen much of that from the print brigade.

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