Why we link: #J361 presentation on curation

The link, or the ability to create a web of relationships between content, facts, and ideas, has fundamentally changed journalism. What follows is a recommended set of reading, I stand on the shoulders of giants, for those in Suzi Steffen’s Reporting 1 class I had the fortune to talk with this afternoon. I’ll try to add perspective when I can, but I’ve got to rush off shortly.

Jay Rosen, who you should follow on Twitter if you don’t already, lays an excellent foundation:

Ryan Sholin breaks down the argument for linking into five parts. Basically, journalists should be responsible citizens of the web. They have responsibility to their readers to provide as much information as they can bring together, responsibility to build bridges between the different parts of their online community, and responsibility to point readers in the direction of the right information when the journalists don’t immediately have the answer.

One point I touched on and want to reiterate is linking is a process of showing your work. This is fundamentally a Good Thing. Both Sean Sullivan and Paul Balcerak agree. In the age of newspapers, buggies, and clapboard houses, the reader was forced to make the assumption that the publication fact-checked and caught all of their errors. Hyperlinking text inherently means that the reader can then go and check out what you’re linking to. If you’re writing a piece with facts you want to substantiate, you can link to the source of every one of those facts. In fact, I agree that it’s “suspect for journos not to link whenever possible.” Making the reporting process transparent builds trust between the publication and the reader, and trust builds brand.

Unfortunately, there are still a number of traditionally print publications that haven’t caught wind of this. A few days back, NYU Local, the upstart publication at NYU, accused the Washington Square News of pilfering their posts without attribution. They found five examples of where NYU Local originally reported the story, only to have Washington Square News rewrite the story and pass it off as their own. If you read through the comments, you’ll notice these examples aren’t necessarily where NYU Local had the scoop, but that shouldn’t get in the way of a critical point Lily is making:

Over the weekend, your former editor and current contributing writer Sergio Hernandez posted about “The Embittered Feud Between NYU’s Junior Journalists” on his personal blog. The post itself was worth reading, but part of Sergio’s response to the onslaught of NYU Local contributor comments was even more interesting and on-point. We complained about your shoddy linking and he dismissed it, saying that we are completely different beasts, and that your online presence is a mere formality. Because your primary medium is print, perhaps for you the web essentially serves as another vehicle to display that print content. Sergio was right in some ways: your paper and our blog are completely different beasts, but the fact remains that your website and NYU Local are not. When you translate content to the web, you need to adjust it to coincide with online ethics. And one basic tenet of those ethics is linking. As young, informed internet users, we assume you know all of this already, so why haven’t you acted on it?

I suppose this is more an argument of “shoulds” than realities. Because, in reality, it is all too easy for you to say that WSN behaves like a traditional newspaper, free of links, and leave it at that. The thing is, you spent the summer re-vamping your website (for the second time in less than two years). Why bother making your site more attractive if you couldn’t care less about advancing the level of your online content?

Not only that, but the “ethic of the link” is actually a more powerful tool, method, and ethos for journalism than anything that came before.

It’s a big, wild internets out there with many examples to illustrate my point. I’d like to share a few:

Ultimately, linking provides tremendous value to your readers because it allows you to highlight the most authoritative voices in a story. At Publish2, we build the tools, including the one I used to add links in this post, to make this happen.


S.P. Sullivan October 8, 2009 Reply

I think this is a really, really interesting ethics question.

Coming from the perspective of an Old Media org trying to have an effective Web presence, the link issue is more of a logistics problem than an ethical one. I don’t think anyone on my staff would disagree with the ethic of the link. But even with leadership that has pretty strong New Media sensibility, it’s been challenging to retool our workflow so that the Web versions of stories aren’t just chunks of text dumped into a WordPress post.

In one hilariously tragic [tragically hilarious?] instance, a new reporter did a story on a Web-based application built by the local computer science department, and failed to provide the URL to the application in the copy. None of the editors caught it, and the print story about this really cool tool failed to tell the reader the most important part: Where to find it. This is the challenge of teaching Old Media new tricks.

Of course, I’m a big believer that poorly-done journalism, even with good intentions, is unethical. So maybe it’s a logistical and ethical problem.

But what, exactly, should you link? Should you link the press release? Do you h/t a tipster? I have my own opinions, but I’d like to hear more dialogue, because I don’t think anyone disagrees over whether you should link, but over what you should link.

Daniel Bachhuber October 10, 2009 Reply

Good points Sean, although I think the question of what you link to is more related to editorial judgement. Just as you decide what story to convey by cutting or emphasizing different parts of a story, I think it’s important to curate how the story fits into the larger context of information on the web by the things you choose to link to vs. those you choose not to. If a press release has valuable information, or someone caught a story on Twitter before anyone else, then I think those are both worthy recipients of a link. An interesting related question, however, is whether the news organization should be responsible for vetting the information they’re linking to (because linking, in some situations, implies endorsement).

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