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