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June 8, 2010, 9:30 a.m.

Why link out? Four journalistic purposes of the noble hyperlink

[To link or not to link? It's about as ancient as questions get in online journalism; Nick Carr's links-as-distraction argument is only the latest incarnation. Yesterday, Jason Fry tried to contextualize the linking debate around credibility, readability, and connectivity. Here, Jonathan Stray tries out his own, more pragmatically focused four-part division. Tomorrow, we'll have the result of Jonathan's analysis of how major news organizations link out and talk about linking out. —Josh]

You don’t need links for great journalism — the profession got along fine for hundreds of years without them. And yet most news outlets have at least a website, which means that links are now (in theory, at least) available to the majority of working journalists. What can links give to online journalism? I see four main answers.

Links are good for storytelling.

Links give journalists a way to tell complex stories concisely.

In print, readers can’t click elsewhere for background. They can’t look up an unfamiliar term or check another source. That means print stories must be self-contained, which leads to conventions such as context paragraphs and mini-definitions (“Goldman Sachs, the embattled American investment bank.”) The entire world of the story has to be packed into one linear narrative.

This verbosity doesn’t translate well to digital, and arguments rage over the viability of “long form” journalism online. Most web writing guides suggest that online writing needs to be shorter, sharper, and snappier than print, while others argue that good long form work still kills in any medium.

Links can sidestep this debate by seamlessly offering context and depth. The journalist can break a complex story into a non-linear narrative, with links to important sub-stories and background. Readers who are already familiar with certain material, or simply not interested, can skip lightly over the story. Readers who want more can dive deeper at any point. That ability can open up new modes of storytelling unavailable in a linear, start-to-finish medium.

Links keep the audience informed.

Professional journalists are paid to know what is going on in their beat. Writing stories isn’t the only way they can pass this knowledge to their audience.

Although discussions of journalism usually center around original reporting, working journalists have always depended heavily on the reporting of others. Some newsrooms feel that verifying stories is part of the value they add, and require reporters to “call and confirm” before they re-report a fact. But lots of newsrooms simply rewrite copy without adding anything.

Rewriting is required for print, where copyright prevents direct use of someone else’s words. Online, no such waste is necessary: A link is a magnificently efficient way for a journalist to pass a good story to the audience. Picking and choosing the best content from other places has become fashionably known as “curation,” but it’s a core part of what journalists have always done.

Some publishers are reluctant to “send readers away” to other work. But readers will always prefer a comprehensive source, and as the quantity of available information explodes, the relative value of filtering it increases.

Links are a currency of collaboration.

When journalists use links to “pay” people for their useful contributions to a story, they encourage and coordinate the production of journalism.

Anyone who’s seen their traffic spike from a mention on a high-profile site knows that links can have immediate monetary impact. But links also have subtler long term value, both tangible (search rankings) and intangible (reputation and status.)  One way or another, a link is generally valuable to the receiver.

A complex, ongoing, non-linear story doesn’t have to be told by a single organization. In line with the theory of comparative advantage, it probably shouldn’t be. Of course journalists can (and should) collaborate formally. But links are an irresistible glue that can coordinate journalistic production across newsrooms and bloggers alike.

This is an economy that is interwoven with the cash economy in complex ways. It may not make business sense to pay another news organization for publishing a crucial sub-story or a useful tip, but a link gives credit where credit is due — and traffic. Along this line, I wonder if the BBC’s policy of not always linking to users who supply content is misguided.

Links enable transparency.

In theory, every statement in news writing needs to be attributed. “According to documents” or “as reported by” may have been as far as print could go, but that’s not good enough when the sources are online.

I can’t see any reason why readers shouldn’t demand, and journalists shouldn’t supply, links to all online resources used in writing a story. Government documents and corporate financial disclosures are increasingly online, but too rarely linked. There are some issues with links to pages behind paywalls and within academic journals, but nothing that seems insurmountable.

Opinion and analysis pieces can also benefit from transparency. It’s unfair — and suspect — to critique someone’s position without linking to it.

Of course, reporters must also rely on sources that don’t have a URL, such as people and paper documents. But even here I would like to see more links, for transparency and context: If the journalist conducted a phone interview, can we listen to the recording? If they went to city hall and saw the records, can they scan them for us? There is already infrastructure for journalists who want to do this. A link is the simplest, most comprehensive, and most transparent method of attribution.

Photo by Wendell used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 8, 2010, 9:30 a.m.
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