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May 4, 2010, noon

Why does the BBC want to send its readers away? The value of linking

The BBC aims to double the number outbound clicks from its site by 2013. That’s double the number of people sent away from the BBC site — intentionally. In a recent BBC blog post, BBC News website editor Steve Herrmann cites a BBC strategy review document which lays out the goal of

Turning the site into a window on the web by providing at least one external link on every page and doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites.

One external link per page will seem laughably low to any seasoned blogger, but intentionally increasing outbound traffic is positively radical for a mainstream newsroom. It’s a goal that might baffle proponents of the walled garden approach to web sites, or raise howls of protest among those who feel that aggregators are parasites, but Herrmann wrote that the BBC sees it as a service to its readers:

Related links matter: They are part of the value you add to your story — take them seriously and do them well; always provide the link to the source of your story when you can; if you mention or quote other publications, newspapers, websites — link to them.

This comes in the wake of £600 million in cuts to the BBC budget, about 15 percent of the huge organization’s spending. That includes a 25-percent cut to the BBC website’s budget, which will halve the number of top-level sections by 2013. The BBC has also delayed its iPad/iPhone news reading application in the U.K. after industry complaints that it is crowding private newsrooms out of the market. (American users can already use the iPad app.)

Is the BBC’s plan to increase external links an enlightened editorial policy, or is this just spin on a downsizing announcement? Are they aiming to provide a valuable curation service to their readers, have they been forced by regulators to reduce the scope of their work, or is this really a cash-strapped move towards a cheaper, aggregator-style news organization? I asked Herrmann to explain.

He told me by email that

The strategy envisages the BBC as a cultural and public space, one that isn’t trying to sell anything and can be trusted. It sets out the aim of building this broader public space by working with other public cultural organisations to share and promote a wider range of content.

So the principle for BBC Online, which covers news, weather, sport and programme content, is that it should be “a window on the web”, guiding audiences to the best of the internet as well as partnering with external providers — and that is why we want to increase the click-throughs.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that competitive concerns played some role in the decision. “We do need to leave space for others,” he wrote.

The move is also about transparency. In an age where many source documents are available in electronic form online, there’s often little reason that readers shouldn’t have access to the same material that reporters use to write their stories. Yet the practice of showing your sources is still less then common among many news organizations. I asked Herrmann if the BBC had a specific policy on source linking.

This is something else I have raised in the blog. There should be a principle that we do link to the most relevant and useful information, including the source documents, wherever we can. That’s not something new — we’ve always had huge interest from users in the source documents we make available for government budget announcements, for example — but it is a restatement of the principle, and a signal of our intent to try to do this as well as we possibly can. Also, as I have started to discuss in the blog post, there is some devil in the detail — for example sometimes the source document isn’t online at time of writing, or it is behind a paywall, or requires subscription — so we are thinking these things through. I’m interested in trying to formulate and develop the best policy with the help of the detailed feedback we are getting from our users.

There is a lively discussion around the details of an ideal source linking policy in the comments to Herrmann’s post, especially as regards academic journals and other non-free sources. It’s also worth mentioning the DocumentCloud project, a serious attempt to build a journalistic document repository which solves some of these problems, such as keeping documents private before publication.

But does the courtesy of linking extend to your competition? “Do what you do best and link to the rest” has become a new-media maxim, but mainstream news organizations are still loathe to send readers to someone else’s reporting. So does the BBC intend to link more often to stories produced by other news sources?

Yes, news organisations and other sources. That is the focus of my recent blog post. We are in the process of working out what this means for our day-to-day working practices on the newsdesk, how to link more but also better. We’ve had links on stories since we started, and we have long had an automated module that pulls in related stories from other news sites, but how can technology help us to do this even better, and what does the journalist working on a story need to change in the way they approach what they do?

Aggregators flourish because users find them useful. The weekly link roundup and the top-ten list remain perennial blogging forms. And while every statement in news writing is supposed be attributed, in practice Wikipedia articles link to their sources far more reliably than news stories. The BBC may be on to something here.

POSTED     May 4, 2010, noon
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