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Link to the past: why do some news sites STILL not link out in 2010?

Journalists now invariably have to take part in web journalism and an increasing number of them only write for the web.

But despite that, not all of them use hyperlinks - one of the main things that elevate digital journalism above and beyond its print counterpart by adding relevance, context, facts, proof and sometimes wit to an otherwise dry and mundane story or sentence.

I would challenge any non-digital platform to offer readers the amount of information that sites like paidContent (my former employer) crams into its “the story in links” posts, usually collated after the sale of a big company, like this one following Bebo’s recent sale for a pitiful sum.

Linking – sometimes referred to as “in-line linking” – has a fundamental role: it conveys information faster and more efficiently than writing it all out again from the original source. The ethos of sites like paidContent is: why waste time re-writing a press release when you can link to it and add value?

As Jeff Jarvis puts it, right now journalists should be  “not merely acting as stenographers — a task most anyone could perform — but adding perspective.” He continues:

If you don’t add value, then you’re not needed. And that’s not necessarily bad. When you don’t add value and someone else can perform the task as stenographer or leaker or reporter — and you can link to it — then that means you save resources and money. This means journalists need to look at where they add maximum value.

Ever questioned why you spend so much time re-writing press releases or agency copy, when both things are often available to everybody online?

Regional headaches

As I write in the August edition of Press Gazette, the absence of linking on regional newspaper sites is often due to technical barriers. Content management systems in some newsrooms make such a simple thing a Big Deal, something only one or two people in the organisation can do.

I’ve heard of regional newspaper journalists who have had to ask their division MD if they can add one single link to a post, so arcane is this practice to the people in charge.

Here’s a little taster of what one regional journalist told me about how their system works:

It’s possible to build link boxes that sit next to web stories, but it’s time-consuming compared to inline links – and if our current CMS is anything to go by, in the press of a busy newsroom, it won’t get done… For those of us who possess data skills and want to make mashups, visualisations and so on, this is a massive inhibition.

National treasures?

But for the national newspapers and magazines, in the majority of cases they have no such excuse and the fact is that many simply choose not to send readers elsewhere. We’re the best, our readers love us, why would anyone go anywhere else?

Take the new-fangled, paid-for thetimes.co.uk. Will they add links to stories to increase the value of their pricey journalism? The hell they will. Dom Ponsford of Press Gazette (yes, I used to work there too) put it succinctly in asking where all the links are on the new Times site (emphasis is mine) …

There aren’t any. At all. Not even to other stuff on The Times. So even though the presentation is great, it makes the content seem curiously flat. The great thing about the internet is the, well, interconnectedness of it all.

The refusal to link out to other sites may seem fair enough commercially, but it is a very old-fashioned view to think that The Times is the only news website readers will visit. It would be a good service to paying subscribers to point them in the direction of other useful stuff elsewhere on the web once in a while.

But as Tom Whitwell, Gurtej Sandhu and all the other execs involved in the Times paywall project put it, they were not building a news website but a digital “newspaper“. Just as you can’t read other titles’ stories when you find a crumpled copy of The Times on the train, the Times site and iPad app don’t want you ever leave.

I’m not saying there are no people that get this right. Notably, FT.com does a stirling job pretty much across all its main news pages and many blogs of linking to relevant pages and information  as does Guardian.co.uk (see update below!). Some, like Telegraph.co.uk, make use of static topic pages for main keywords which can help readers find interesting stories (I haven’t got time to critique the entire UK press on this front – please add good or bad examples of linking in the comments below).

There simply is more interesting stuff out there on the web than on one single news site. The best thing you can do is help readers find the best stuff.

Update: On the subject of Guardian.co.uk and linking – it does do a good job directing readers to interesing and relevent things on its blogs and in the technology/media section, but I am swayed by some commenters below criticising my assertion that the site is “good at linking”, as the majority of links do appear to be internal-facing subject page links. Ciaran makes this case very strongly here.  It would almost be fairer not to mention any national papers – except FT.com, which I do read every day and it invariably hits the mark link-wise.

Update 2: Check out The Guardian’s “information architect” Martin Belam on five ways the Guardian does link out to online content. Martin shows this is a complex story: there is more than more way to link, and the Guardian has a lot of innovative tricks to add them in interesting ways. I suppose the crux of my questioning in this area is: should links be part of every day news copy online? Some commenters below make the point that perhaps readers don’t want them.

I’m not exactly retracting my support for the Guardian as an intelligent outward facing digital news organisation, I just wonder if the link policy is consistent across the entire site, plus it’s slightly unfair to cite one (non-financial) national title without fully auditing all the rest.

Pic credit:  Will Montague, via Flickr, CC licence

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  • http://www.willpeach.com Will Peach

    Patrick,

    Great post and a lot of things to consider.

    I find it strange how smaller news sites and blogs with large readerships seized on the importance of linking relatively early on.

    Is it purely because of technical difficulties that regional’s ignore it though? Perhaps they operate more like nationals than we think, each with a certain level of arrogance in the vein of “We’re the best, our readers love us, why would anyone go anywhere else?”

  • http://www.betatales.com John Einar Sandvand

    Very well pointed out. In fact I think journalists can learn a lot from many of the best bloggers in this regard.

    I included this in the article “5 things journalists should learn from bloggers”, which you may find relevant to read:
    http://www.betatales.com/2010/06/23/5-things-journalists-should-learn-from-bloggers/

  • http://markmedia.posterous.com markmedia

    I recently asked a researcher at a national broadcaster why they didn’t link to the reports they talked about in the news segment.
    Her answer?
    it might makes it look like we endorse their report ….
    if we did then we would be a commercial portal, not a news service.

    Mind meet boggle

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  • http://maryhamilton.co.uk Mary Hamilton

    Once the tech issues are solved news companies still have to train their journalists to write for the web – including links – and give them enough time to write separate stories for print and online. There has to be a culture that values web writing as a separate, distinct skill from print writing, and that rewards efforts to do it well along with providing the necessary training to help journalists understand not only how to do it but why it matters.

  • http://www.newjournalismreview.com Steve Hill

    Great post. It’s very old media thinking to view a website as a ‘destination’ – where the needs of all users are served on one site.

    Not linking just irritates users and hyperlinks are surely the basis of web communication. Indeed, one way of rating the ‘authority of websites is to analyze the number of links ‘in’ and ‘out’ of a page.

    Newspapers must be generous with their links – it can only help the communities they serve.

  • steve white

    inline hyperlinking is a lost art of the internet. and link are blogger greatest asset, newspaper too if the get over themselves

  • http://www.yelvington.com/ yelvington

    “Writing for print” is the real reason you don’t see links on mainstream news sites. The newsroom content management tools can reinforce that habit.

    It’s striking that many media companies are investing in new technology to save money on print production while utterly ignoring the needs of their own struggling digital products.

    Some of this is just a matter of configuration, but often the decisionmakers — IT departments — make assumptions that seem reasonable but are inappropriate, and editorial leaders fail to correct them.

    Example error: The task is to produce the daily with as few hands as possible, then move the daily’s content efficiently to the Web. That’s upside-down, of course, and perpetuates outdated newsroom behaviors that are focused on the fading medium at the expense of the rising medium.

    The actual workflow and data-management requirements of a large Web-first, print-daily newsroom are fairly complex. Blogging tools like WordPress are not up to the task (suggestions to the contrary are simply naive). So it’s not a matter of throwing out the dinosaur software and plugging in something you downloaded from a website.

    We are working to integrate Drupal, which we use for our newspaper websites, with a newsroom CMS that’s designed to handle complex production of multiple print titles. The system has some significant shortcomings, but once I drew the right pictures on a whiteboard, their programmer-analysts got the idea and I think we’re going to emerge with a powerful integration.

    I suspect that at many media companies, people who really understand the online requirements are simply not adequately represented or valued in the processes that lead to technology acquisition.

  • http://www.onemanandhisblog.com Adam Tinworth

    I think Steve Hill hits the main problem on the head a couple of comments above. There’s still a prevalent attitude amongst many senior managers in publishing houses that their sites are one-stop shops, and that leads to focus on home pages and the late 90s concept of “sticky content”. Under that mindset, links out are a damage to the business, so web CMSes get built in a way that make links hard to build, so journalists get the message that links out are unimportant (a message that many of them are all too eager to hear).

    This really is one of those problems that needs to be addressed at the upper levels of an organisation.

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  • http://www.chriswheal.com Chris Wheal

    I prefer external links to open new windows. This means no matter how many further links people follow, your website remains open in their browser.

    But but to do so requires us (Disability Discrimination Act for those supplying services to the public) to let users know they will be opening the new window. The RNIB recommends (new window)at the end of the link.

    With lots of links in the text, this becomes uncomfortable. The alternative is to put links at the end, with a heading including the (new window)explanation.

    The RNIB accepts this as an alternative.

    http://www.rnib.org.uk/professionals/webaccessibility/designbuild/navigation/Pages/new_windows.aspx

  • A Webeditor

    Nobody does it very well, certainly not in the national media – and I’d dispute even the Guardian linking out, except to favoured friends (instead they’re more likely to link to a subsection of their own site ABOUT the subject in question). Bu

    People are right above when they say there’s a mentality about not linking out – part of it is that it exposes where other stories have come from, how often the reporting has been just ‘copy and paste, change a word or two’ from a press release, a report or whatever. And part of it is the traditional ‘keep everyone on the site’ mentality where length of visit and average pages per visit rates are seen as key in attracting revenue.

    But I think you’re wrong to put the blame, as you seem to do in your opening par and in the original headline to this article, on the web journalists. Too often they are desperately under-resourced, under pressure, fighting with a CMS that is old and badly designed, and facing continuing resistance from newsrooms who treat them or what they do with suspicion.. even in this day and age.

    Asking them to link on every article, or even most articles, when they still have to tidy up the text, SEO headlines, keyword stories, source pictures and multimedia, moderate comments and the billion other jobs that come in every day. I would love to have time to go through every article and link every person quoted to their academic or professional profile, every company to their website, every follow-up to original stories. But I would need far more time, and more bodies, and less scornful looks at my desk, to do so.

  • http://www.psmithjournalist.com Patrick Smith

    Thanks for all the comments, really pleased people are talking about this – it’s the kind of issue that’s so varies across the industry that you can only make sense of it by getting a broad swathe of opinion.

    @Mark: I think you describe the problem well – the inherant fear for publishers is that if they link to something they then by proxy agree with it or endorse it. And no one wants to endorse or support their rival, they will say.

    But readers don’t give a fig about professional pride and childish rivalries, they just want to read good, timely stuff.

    @Steve and @adders you are both so right about the culture of thinking sites are one-stop shops. The blaring PR noise of sites like the Times and FT.com and their paywall propaganda can only filter down tot he rest of the industry which, losing money hand over fist, assumes that to also have a big walled garden is the way forward.

    Throughout all the newspaper-watching I’ve done, there’s always been a fundamental wish that things stay the same – that newspapers remain just that, in print and online. Standalone, big brands loved by advertisers and readers. Being an increasingly minor player in a scarcely profitable global marketplace was not part of the plan.

    @Yelvington thanks for stopping by, really looking forward to seeing what you come up with with Drupal custom CMSs. I agree WordPress isn’t nearly up to the job where a complex print/online operation is concerned. I probably was guilty of suggesting free software like WP would solve the problem – but then readers, like this guy, took me apart. There really isn’t one solution to this problem.

    @Whealie – you make a very valid point about accessibility and to be honest I hadn’t considered that before. I shall look into that – any links would be appreciated!!

  • http://www.psmithjournalist.com Patrick Smith

    @Webeditor – I did indeed change this headline, to make clear that this isn’t about criticising individual journalists.

    I’m not sure I am criticising individual journalists – as I make clear here and in the PG article, and as @Yelvington writes so eloquently int he comments, the problem is one of cultural/technology barriers that some from the top. Some news sites and therefore the journalists that work for them, do not link out. Full stop. I’m just describing things as they are, not blaming hard working hacks as you seem to think.

    Surely we should get to the stage where the individual reporters add their own links? Why the hell should it be your job to “add” links to things after something has been written? Why can’t reporters do that? It doesn’t take long to add links to things and it should be a fundamental part of the story-writing process.

    Take for example citing a report in another newspaper. Why say, “as reported by the Daily Mail” when you could send them straight there with a link. As you say, the mentality in a lot places prevents that.

    Of course, it’s not always possible under pressure and probably not even appropriate for some stories. But I’d still like to see titles experiment (resources permitting) because it’s the “cut’n'paste” press release part of the biz I think we can do without.

  • http://ciarannorris.co.uk Ciaran

    An old issue, but one that won’t go away as people (at all levels) refuse to change, for a variety of reasons.

    The Guardian? Hardly – if you’ll excuse a link of my own, I detailed their seeming reluctance to link a while back http://ciarannorris.co.uk/2008/12/17/the-guardian-the-scrooge-of-seo/

    Adam’s right that CMS is often the problem – certainly when I spoke to people at the BBC that was one of the main issues. But it’s not just the CMS, it’s the systems & processes those platforms support.

    For those who grew up with copious subs to do all the fiddly stuff, having to learn to stick in links is quite a sea-change. And the subs aren’t going to know which links should go in as well as the journo would.

    Things are getting better, but it will be a long while till most of the big sites have this sorted.

  • http://chriswheal.com Chris Wheal

    Making websites accessible – http://www.chriswheal.com/accessible-web/

  • Scoop

    You quote Jeff Jarvis in support of your premise by saying journalists should add value and not just be stenographers – but you ignore the fact that the very task that journalists perform is to sort through all the press releases and data sources and precis and present the important stuff. That analysis is the value they add. Stuffing in links can be useful signposting, but have you stopped to consider that not all readers want to spend the next half-hour fact-checking what they’ve just read? They like to assume the authors knows what they’re writing about; it’s why they’re reading it in the first place.

    There’s also a familiar refrain that in the new journalism, readers are active and don’t want to be lectured to. Well let them get off their backsides and use Google then… ;-)

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  • http://www.currybet.net Martin Belam

    This blog post has actually sparked me off to write three things myself. So far. I’ve got plans for another couple!

    As well as the “5 ways that The Guardian puts external links onto web pages” Patrick mentioned above, I’ve also addressed the issue of The Guardian’s internal-facing inline links in article. The post and the comments have also prompted me to put down some of my thoughts on some of the considerations around the user experience of external links on news sites.

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  • alaanile

    I think Steve Hill hits the main problem on the head a couple of comments above. There’s still a prevalent attitude amongst many senior managers in publishing houses that their sites are one-stop shops, and that leads to focus on home pages and the late 90s concept of “sticky content”. Under that mindset, links out are a damage to the business, so web CMSes get built in a way that make links hard to build, so journalists get the message that links out are unimportant (a message that many of them are all too eager to hear).

    This really is one of those problems that needs to be addressed at the upper levels of an organisation.

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  • alaanile

    I think Steve Hill hits the main problem on the head a couple of comments above. There’s still a prevalent attitude amongst many senior managers in publishing houses that their sites are one-stop shops, and that leads to focus on home pages and the late 90s concept of “sticky content”. Under that mindset, links out are a damage to the business, so web CMSes get built in a way that make links hard to build, so journalists get the message that links out are unimportant (a message that many of them are all too eager to hear).

    This really is one of those problems that needs to be addressed at the upper levels of an organisation.

    here

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