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.
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.
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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