Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Media change deniers: Why debates around news need a better evidence base — and how we can get one
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July 22, 2015, 12:32 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Like many other news organizations, The New York Times wrote about the recent high-profile resignations at Gawker (here’s the link), and like a few others, it chose not to link to the root of the Gawker upheaval, a story about a male escort’s attempts to blackmail a married media executive after discovering the executive had a famous brother. As the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan explained in her blog post today, reasons for not linking had to do with Gawker pulling the original story as well as a desire to avoid exposing the name of a private individual — even indirectly through a link — whose privacy Times editors felt had been pointlessly violated.

But the omission of the link, though intentional, made some people grumpy in part because of the Times’ (and, to be fair, many traditional news organizations’) spotty record for linking out to sources.

In her post, Sullivan acknowledges that the Times is still consistently inconsistent when it comes to linking out to sources. More than a year ago, standards editor Philip B. Corbett told Sullivan that the Times should “routinely be linking to background information, to other news reports, to stories our competitors broke,” not just because crediting properly is just good practice, but because readers “want and value those links.”

For professional newsrooms, settling on the “right” standards for linking out can be a bit of a tug-of-war between the culture of web-based writing (which strongly encourages it), a news site’s desire to keep reader traffic within its site, and in some cases the constraints of a janky CMS. In a 2013 study on the changing culture of hyperlinking, Nieman Lab contributor Mark Coddington writes:

Alongside cultural norms from the political blogosphere discussed above, the institutional setting of news organizations also played a significant role in shaping journalists’ linking practices. This setting manifested itself primarily through the institutional forces shaping the bureaucratized process by which those links are added. One of the fundamental elements of that process — and one of the sharpest differences between linking in more and less institutional contexts — is who performs the task of adding the links.

In less institutional settings such as a single or dual-authored blog, writers of a post almost always added links themselves. A variety of arrangements existed in more institutional news organizations, but links were most commonly added by the author, with editors checking, suggesting, and adding links…

In general, however, the more institutional the setting, the more likely links were to be subject to extra layers of organizational oversight, and the less likely they were to be tied to a single individual’s judgment, values, and practices.

In interviews with a range of bloggers inside and outside traditional news organizations, as well as web editors in those news organizations, Coddington found that clunky content management systems built primarily to produce a print newspaper were also a hindrance to adopting more widespread linking practices. Moreover, some journalists were confused about what exactly their newsroom’s standards were. Such roadblocks, though, have been falling away, albeit slowly and incrementally:

Because the processes of linking are so routinized and the values that constrain it so culturally bound, changes in linking practices within news organizations have had to take place at the routine and cultural levels as well. Several journalists described a cultural resistance to linking in newsrooms in past years built around a desire to keep readers within the organization’s website. But all of them also said that deep-seated resistance to linking had begun to fall away, largely because of two factors: the infusion of the Web’s cultural values discussed earlier, and a concerted effort by particular editors to institutionalize linking by incorporating it into the workflow of writing for the Web.

At least for the Times, as Sullivan wrote in her post, “the decision on Gawker aside, routine linking is not quite there yet.”

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