Links can add a lot of value to stories, but the journalism profession as a whole has been surprisingly slow to take them seriously. That’s my conclusion from several months of talking to organizations and reporters about their linking practices, and from counting the number and type of links from hundreds of stories.
Wikipedia has a 5,000 word linking style guide. That might be excessive, but at least it’s thorough. I wondered what professional newsrooms thought of linking, so I contacted a number of them and asked how they were directing their reporters to use links. I got answers — but sometimes vague answers.
In this post I’ll report those answers, and in the next post I’ll discuss the results of my look into how links are actually being used in the published work of a dozen news outlets.
The BBC made its linking intentions public in a March 19 post by website editor Steve Herrmann.
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; you can, where appropriate, deep-link; that is, link to the specific, relevant page of a website.
I asked Herrmann for details and reported his responses previously. Then I sent this paragraph to other news organizations and asked about their linking policies. A spokesperson for The New York Times wrote:
Yes, the guidance we offer to our journalists is very similar to that of the BBC, in that we encourage them to provide links, where appropriate, to sources and other relevant information.
Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti made similar remarks, but emphasized that the Post encourages “deep linking.”
While we don’t have a formal policy yet on linking, we are actively encouraging our reporters, especially our bloggers, to link to relevant and reliable online sources outside washingtonpost.com and in doing so, to be contextual, as in to link to specific content [rather] than to a generic site so that our readers get where they need to get quickly.
Why would anyone not link to the exact page of interest? In the news publishing world, the issue of deep linking has a history of controversy, starting with the Shetland Times vs. Shetland News case in 1996.
The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires wouldn’t discuss their linking policy, as a spokesperson wrote to me:
As you can see from the site, we do link to many outside news organizations and sources. But unfortunately, we don’t publicly discuss our policies, so we won’t have anyone to elaborate on this.
From observation, I did confirm that Dow Jones Newswires don’t reliably link to source documents even when publicly available online. I found a simple story about a corporate disclosure, tracked down the disclosure document on the stock exchange web site, then called the Dow Jones reporter and confirmed that this was the source of the story. But it’s unfair to single out Dow Jones, because wire services don’t do linking generally.
The Associated Press does not include inline links in stories, though they sometimes append links in an “On the Net” section at the bottom of stories. A spokesperson explained why there is no inline linking:
In short, a technical constraint. We experimented with inline linking a year or so ago but had difficulties given the huge variety of downstream systems, at AP and subscriber locations, that handle our copy. The AP serves 1,500 member U.S. papers, as well as thousands of commercial Web sites and ones operated by the papers, radio and TV stations, and so on.
Reuters links in various ways from stories viewed within its professional desktop products, including links to source documents and previous Reuters stories, though these links are not always standard URLs. Their newswire product does not include links. A spokesperson asked not to be quoted directly, but explained that, like the Associated Press, many of their customers could not handle inline links — and no copy editor wants to be forced to manually remove embedded HTML. She also said that Reuters sees itself as providing an authoritative news source that can be used without further verification. I get her point, but I don’t see it as a reason to not point to public sources.
The wire services are in a tricky position. Not only are many of their customers unable to handle HTML, but it’s often not possible for the wires to link to their previous stories — either because they aren’t posted online or they’re posted on many subscriber websites. This illuminates an unsolved problem with syndication and linking generally: if every user of syndicated material posts copy independently on their own site, there is no canonical URL that can be used by the content creator to refer to a particular story. (The AP’s been thinking about this.)
These sorts of technical issues are definitely a barrier, and staff from several newsrooms told me that their print-era content management systems don’t handle links well. There’s also no standard format for filing a story with hyperlinks — copy might be drafted in Microsoft Word, but links are unlikely to survive being repeatedly emailed, cut and pasted, and squeeze through any number of different systems.
But technical obstacles don’t much matter if reporters don’t value links enough to write them into their stories. In conversations with staff members from various newsrooms, I’ve frequently heard that cultural issues are a barrier. When paper is seen as the primary product, adding good links feels like extra work for the reporter, rather than an essential part of the storytelling form. Some publishers are also suspicious that links to other sites will “send readers away” — a view that would seem to contradict the suspicion of inbound links from aggregators.
Reading between the lines, it seems that most newsrooms have yet to make a strong commitment to linking. This would explain the mushiness of some of the answers I received, where news organizations “encourage” their reporters or offer “guidance” on linking. If, as I believe, links are an essential part of online journalism, then the profession has a way to go to exploit the digital medium. In my next post, I’ll break down some numbers on how different news organizations are using links today.