Blog Post

Why Is It Still So Hard to Get Some Media Outlets to Link?

You wouldn’t think that in 2011, we would still be having debates about the value of linking to things, yet we are. Blogging veteran Doc Searls of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society got the latest discussion going with a blog post about how so many mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times and Associated Press don’t link in their news stories. That in turn led to a late-night Twitter discussion I had with Patrick LaForge, an editor at the New York Times, and Jacob Harris, who is a senior developer on the paper’s “data journalism” team, (as well as several others) about the relative value of linking. To me, the fact that we are even having debates like this says a lot about how far the traditional media has to go in terms of embracing the online world.

I collected some excerpts of the Twitter discussion on my personal blog last night using Storify (it’s also embedded at the bottom of this post), and Alex Byers of Politico also put together a Storify summary. It’s important to note that this was just a casual Twitter conversation. In other words, their comments are not official statements by the New York Times and should not be interpreted as such. Patrick and Jacob are both passionate journalists who care deeply about the Times, the web and journalism.

Still an uphill battle

Jacob started off our debate by saying that he was playing devil’s advocate — in other words, deliberately challenging the idea that links are a really important factor for news stories. But having worked at a mainstream newspaper for 15 years, and having spent much of that time trying to convince the paper to add links and otherwise become more web-friendly, I know that many of his points are honestly held by others at the paper. You can read the whole Storify thread, but the main points boil down to these:

  • It’s time-consuming: Because of the way newspapers publish their content, many links have to be added later, and it’s hard for reporters or editors to get around to it. This point was also made by Brian Boyer of the Chicago Tribune in a comment on Doc Searls’ post. Patrick also argued that because the news business is so fast-paced, links sometimes get forgotten until later, or are just not added at all.
  • Linking is nice, but not necessary: Jacob and Patrick both argued that while having some links to websites or documents is a nice thing to have in a story, in many cases it’s just not that important, or not as important as some web advocates make it out to be.
  • Real news isn’t online: Patrick argued that real news comes from actual reporting in the real world, and therefore he and Jacob said that there often isn’t anything to link to, or at least nothing important or worthy enough to include.
  • The NYT should be the link: When I suggested that stories should contain links to help readers find more information, Patrick said that the New York Times is trying to be the authoritative link (although he later clarified that he didn’t mean stories shouldn’t also contain links).

The web isn’t as important? Wrong

A couple of things struck me about these arguments. The defense about “workflow” being a problem — which media researcher Chris Anderson took on in a comment on Doc Searls’ post — is a symptom of a much bigger problem. Newspaper journalists’ inability to add links as an integral part of their stories from the beginning, and instead have to add them later in a separate process, is another sign of how the entire way most newspapers function is antithetical to the web. And it’s also a sign of how far even large entities like the Times still have to go before they make the web a core part of how they operate (which publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. insists they are doing).

Patrick in particular seemed to be arguing that the web is secondary to what “real” reporters and journalists do, an argument I have heard from others many times. In other words, putting on the fedora and grabbing the notepad and wearing out the shoe leather knocking on doors is more important than adding links. This is a false dichotomy — the two should go hand in hand. Not only that, but staking your future on only the news you alone can produce is a recipe for heartbreak.

One point I tried to make to Jacob, when he pointed to an authoritative story about Japan’s nuclear disaster that didn’t contain a single link to anything (not even a New York Times topic page) is that to me, links are fundamentally ways of adding value to a story for the reader through context, background, support for your arguments, and a host of other benefits. And they do this without disrupting the flow of the story — it’s there if you need it. Jacob and Patrick both agreed that having links when you quote a document or a website made sense, but they didn’t seem to think others were necessary. To me, if you aren’t adding links, you are forcing readers to go to Google (s goog) to find more information. Why not save them the trouble?

If you are a newspaper, I would think that trying to compete with Google on that front would be a necessity, since many people are getting all they need from Google News already without ever visiting your website. Call me a web zealot, but I think we should be past the point where we discuss — even as a devil’s advocate — whether linking is valuable or not. And the fact that newspapers like the Times still treat it as a secondary thing says a lot about their mindset towards the web.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Wesley Fryer

18 Responses to “Why Is It Still So Hard to Get Some Media Outlets to Link?”

  1. It seems to me that increasing their web site page views and Ad impressions are valued more than comprehensive storytelling at old-school newspapers. They will gladly link internally to their own related stories, even when those on other sites are more relevant, substantive and meaningful.

    The fear of sending their visitors to other source content is simple — those people may not return and therefore won’t browse other pages on the legacy newspaper’s web site. The result: less page views, less advertising impressions.

  2. Patrick LaForge


    You’ve distorted a lot of what I had to say, but I’m feeling charitable and will chalk that up to the limitations of any discussion on Twitter.

    As I said last night, “Nothing stands alone. Of course links are important. Judiciously chosen, authoritative, relevant links that add value.”

    You say that The Times “does not link.” In fact, we link out quite a bit, and it’s our policy. From the Times Stylebook:

    “If an article refers to a Web site, article or other online content of interest to readers, provide an embedded link that will show up online. (Even when a Web site is not specifically mentioned, readers value links to background information and other useful content.)”

    Could we link more? Certainly. And we could also link better, which is what I thought our discussion was about: the quality of links, and the things that get in the way.

    When an obvious link is omitted, that’s usually an oversight, and we rush to correct it. Readers are encouraged to drop a note to [email protected] about our mistakes. We’re not perfect.

    But that part about getting outside and observing real people in real places? I think that’s good advice for any reporter, anywhere. The primary job of a journalist, pro or citizen, is to tell people what they don’t know — news. And that is often something that someone doesn’t want the public to know. You don’t typically find that in a Google search. A good reporter should aspire to be the one who puts the news on the Web first and best — the definitive link, even if it’s only for an hour.

    You can’t do that every time, of course. Sometimes you are building on the work of others. Then you link.

    • Thanks for the comment, Patrick — I’m sorry that you feel I misrepresented your views. I tried to do the best I could with what I had available, and I know that you and many others at the NYT value links. But I think that for a variety of reasons, which I tried to describe in the post, it doesn’t happen. I am not blaming you or anyone else — I am simply trying to point out that it remains a problem.

  3. aep528

    Funny, but you didn’t really answer a simple question in your article: Why should anyone link at all? The closest you came was “fundamentally ways of adding value to a story,” but is it the only, or even the best, way of adding value to a story? And please refer us to any articles that attempt to quantify the additional value, or is it simply your opinion?

    And by the way, to clarify where I am coming from: I rarely, if ever, follow links. When I am reading “news” (or blog posts) online, all I am looking for is a clear, concise summary of events. If I want more information, I have no problem doing a search. I am not so lazy that I need it done for me.

    • I tried to suggest some in the post — context, background, support for arguments and statements of fact, etc. If you don’t see the value of having those things added to the articles that you read, I can’t force you to see it. And if reading articles and taking them at face value works for you, then that’s great. Thanks for the comment.

      • I am that way too about links. A lot of times, links distract from the main point of the article. In fact, I sometimes think GigaOm articles although well written would benefit more if almost every other phrase was not a link.

        Just my 2 cents :)

  4. ronald

    In the good old days news papers had to set context in their stories since data was not easily organized and accessible.

    Context is organized data, links are one way to provide this organization and accumulate more context.

    Hence now one can assume for most readers that the context is already set and repeating data in a story can become annoying to the reader. In other words writing stories like it’s the 18th century is a recipe for disaster.

    May I suggest they think hard about data, context , information and news what it is and how it relates and overlaps and what that means in a connected world.

  5. I don’t get it. We have this thing called the internet, capable of providing so much information in seconds, and the old guard media still hesitates to even provide links? The sheer pace of information we are trying to keep up with really demands attribution. In the old days, we could assume that the reputation of a journalism team was baked into each article, and thereby infused with said reputation. The rapid and dynamic speed of new content additions to the webosphere, however, cannot rely on such a model. We need to have all the links, extra bits, and other things that go into an article available to us. It also allows the reader to do their own research, to reach more insightful conclusions, if they so choose.

  6. Once more, I am sadly reminded of my epiphany while working at a magazine that was supposedly committed to digital: The worst part is that the Online DIRECTOR was the one who said it. He said it with not a hint of regret, not an ounce of pathos. He has accepted it, he has internalized it, he has made his peace with it. And I think that exemplifies the eventual attitude of most web people working at print-first organizations. They can only fight the good fight for so long. Eventually they either give in and stop pushing for change, head for the academy or to a company that truly values them and their ideas, not just keeping them on staff for token purposes or web grunt work.

  7. txpatriot

    What bugs the crap outta me is when an article discusses the latest study from a particular college or think tank, then provides no link to teh study.

    Talk about lazy journalism! The writer obviously did no more than read a press release and turned it into a blog post w/o doing teh follow-up research to find the actual study.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into this and when I do, I sometimes (but not always) complain to the author that they should not make their readers do their work for them.

  8. net poser

    Why are you wasting your time with the NYT? They don’t get it, never have, and I doubt they ever will. Plus you are just a “blogger” and thus should never question them. :)

  9. Jacob Harris

    Apparently, by declaring the discourse about linking too histrionic and attempting to explore the “value of linking” in more specific terms I have now been labeled an apostate. Good to know.

    • Jake, I certainly don’t think you are an apostate — and I think the value of links is a worthwhile discussion to have. That’s why I stayed up late having it :-) and also why I wrote this post. It is important.

  10. Bekaar

    Most newspaper web sites (nytimes, in particular) do not allow users to comment. I often notice inaccurate information (especially in stories on Asia) in these stories and I should think that newspapers would benefit from corrections. But it seems they would rather have wrong information than corrections.

      • John, I think what that commenter meant is that comments aren’t opened on every story. The Times has the ability to turn comments on or off on any given piece of content, as do many other major news orgs like the Guardian in the U.K. It’s actually an interesting discussion: should comments always be on by default? But it’s a bit off-topic for this post.