Analysis - by on Thursday, June 11, 2009 11:57 - 21 Comments

Why we link: A brief rundown of the reasons your news organization needs to tie the Web together

Ryan Sholin is the Director of News Innovation at Publish2, a co-founder of Wired Journalists and a 2008 Knight News Challenge winner for ReportingOn. You can reach him at ryan[a]publish2[dot]com or @ryansholin.

Whenever I talk with news organizations of any size about linking to sources, resources and journalism that originated outside the walls of their newsroom, two questions come up: How and Why.

Well, conveniently enough, I work for Publish2, and we build tools that help answer the question of How. If your problem is that systems make adding links directly in the text of your story a difficult task, let’s solve that by adding links in widgets, sidebars, scrolling across the bottom of the browser window, blinking in 96pt red Helvetica, pushed to Twitter — wherever and however you want them.

My standing offer on How is that if the question comes up, you can talk to me and I’ll help you out.

So back to the question of Why.

Why we link: Five reasons your news organization should tie the Web together

1. Because we owe it to our readers to give them as much information as we have at our fingertips.

Don’t we? Of course we do.

If you’re a journalist, a huge part of your job is to filter all the information relevant to your community or your beat and pass along the important parts to your readers. Think about all the press releases you get by fax or e-mail, all the phone calls, voicemail, and messages that land on your desk, and think about how you act as a filter for that flood of information. Do the same thing with the Web.

Bring your readers the best links related to your story, and they will thank you. How? By treating you like a first-class citizen of the Internet, and coming back to your news site, which is no longer a dead end backwater in the river of news, but a point of connection where they can find other interesting streams.

Chris Amico took it one step further in a tip he submitted via the Publish2 Collaborative Reporting form I used to gather some ideas for this post. “Humility is healthy,” Chris wrote. “The more we get out of this mindset that we are the sole producers of useful content, the better off we’ll be in the long run.”


2. Because linking to sources and resources is the key gesture to being a citizen of the Web and not just a product on the Web.

You might think your news organization is super-duper-Web-savvy because you put your stories online, have RSS feeds and push links to your own content out via social networks, including Twitter.

That’s Step One. And it’s a good first step.

But, if all you provide your readers is flat content that doesn’t take them anywhere else on the Web, or back up statements with direct sources, or provide resources for those who want to explore a topic beyond what you’ve been able to provide with original reporting, you’re just shoveling text into another bucket, one labeled “Web.”

If, on the other hand, you want to embrace the traits that make blogs, Twitter, and so many other online communication tools a vital part of the daily life of your readers, your news site shouldn’t feel like an endpoint in the conversation. It should feel like the beginning.

Asteris Masouras put it this way in a Twitter reply to my query about why we link:

Links are the lifeblood of the web. It's counterintuitive & suspect for journos not to link whenever possible.


3. Because it’s the best way to connect directly with the online community in our town.

If you’re writing about human beings, businesses, organizations, government institutions or any other life form with a presence on the Internet, linking to them in the stories you publish about them is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to participating in your local online community.

Skipping the link to the city council’s calendar when you mention the next meeting, leaving out the link to the Little League’s online scoreboard when you write a story about its resurgence or not bothering to link to the full database of restaurant inspections when you choose three to write about — these are all easy ways to miss an opportunity to connect with your community and your readers.

Start simple: If you mention a person or organization, link to them.

Many, many bonus points to be awarded if you dig deep enough into the local online community to link to relevant content created by the people in your story. Did that angry neighbor’s crusade for a new zoning law to govern branches that hang over someone else’s driveway start with an image posted to a photo-sharing site and a determined comment? Link to it.

There’s a huge upside to linking out to community members, of course. Sometimes they link back.

Wenatchee World Web Editor Brianne Pruitt dropped a tip in my form including the following statement: “The link economy is real, and important for anyone who wants to be a part of the Web ecology.” I’d translate that as: Give some, get some.

And here’s how Web developer Pete Karl answered the question of why news organizations should link to external sources:

To give them the slightest chance of getting noticed.


4. Because we absolutely do not know everything, but we know where to find out most of what we don’t know.

The days of your news organization existing as a monopolistic source of local information are over, and your readers know it. They browse local, national, international, and topical news and commentary in more places than you call “news.” And if they don’t, they hear it from their friends on any one of a dozen social networks. They know that you don’t know it all. And so do you.

But you’re the journalist.

You’re the filter. You’re the person in town who knows everyone who knows everyone. You’ve got the sources, whether they’re people you talk to at the community center, the city council meeting, the police station, or their Live Journal page. Bring what they know to your readers as directly as possible: Link to them.

David Cohn of Spot.Us offered up the now-classic Jeff Jarvis line in my tip form: “Do what you do best, and link to the rest.”


5. Because it will make your job easier.

I know, I know. Everyone is asking you to do more with less. It’s extremely easy to tell people like me that you just don’t have time for another toy, another tool, another camera, another social network or another task.

I’m here to tell you that bringing your readers the best of the Web can save you work.

How? By opening a two-way channel to let your readers tell you what you should link to next, you’ll cut down on the time you spend looking for that next thing. By maintaining a real presence in the local link economy, you’ll make it easier for sources who know the answers to your questions to find you, and you won’t spend as much time trying to find them.

By sending your readers to the best information available on the Web, you’ll keep them coming back for more, drawing more traffic to your news site. Last time I checked, more traffic is one way to make more money, and with any luck, that’s still how you get paid.


Bonus Links on Links:

Thanks to everyone who replied on Twitter or in the Publish2 Tip Form when I asked for some of the best reasons to link out from your news site.


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About BeatBlogging.org

BeatBlogging.org was a grant-funded journalism project that studied how journalists used social media and other Web tools to improve beat reporting. It ran for about two years, ending in the fall of 2009.

New content is occasionally produced here by the this project's former editor Patrick Thornton. The site is still up and will remain so because many journalists and professors still use and link to the content. BeatBlogging.org offers a fascinating glimpse into the former stages of journalism and social media. Today it's expected that journalists and journalism organization use social media, but just a few years ago that wasn't the case.

About the Author of this post
Ryan Sholin is the Director of News Innovation at Publish2.