When to link – best practice in online journalism

Tony Hallett

Tony Hallett

Managing Director

March 4, 2012 10:00 am

Last week we showed our dismay over trends in curation and aggregation often meaning the originator of a piece of content gets lost.
Almost at the same time as hitting publish on that, others have been ratcheting up the volume in the ongoing debate as to whether to go further – always linking to a source piece.

The debate is indeed wider – it’s about readers being one click away from knowing what has been said, not just citing and sourcing which only lets people know where something was said.

The web makes this possible where previously it wasn’t. And yet with short-form channels such as Twitter it is possible but often a pain, because of space constraints.
The always-insightful Felix Salmon from Reuters explains this well. “The difference between linking and citing is the difference between showing and telling,” he writes.

He doesn’t go on to say everything should be hyperlinked or cited but that there are cases where linking to primary documents is a no-brainer. Agreed.

Meanwhile Matt DeRienzo, writing on NewspaperTurnaround.com, examines the idea that linking can and should be a “keystone habit of [online] journalism”.

But these digital journalism experts both acknowledge one problem: some content you see online isn’t always read online – someone could be accessing it on an underground train or using a small/slow device that doesn’t make jumping off a page easy. Or the content might also be carried in print editions of a publication. (Hey, perhaps the content management system the writer has to use is still print first. When that’s the case, linking can sometimes be harder.)

All that means stories end up being more self-contained, giving context, going back over old info. When this writer was starting out as a journalist one old maxim went: Never overestimate the reader’s memory; never underestimate the reader’s intelligence. Plenty of places are going to continue to give their audiences the full context, link-lite treatment.
Here’s a final view on this, from the world of academia. The Modern Language Association in its style guide now includes a format for citing tweets, as explained in The Atlantic. But as Alexis Madrigal explains: “It’s curious that no URL is required.”

Curious, indeed.

The ‘When to link’ / ‘When to cite’ conversations will go on. Generally speaking, we believe that whether it’s linking or citing more is more – unless it completely distracts the reader.

Salmon makes a good final point. To paraphrase: There is an argument around this which is about how to best serve the reader. And there is an argument that is among journalists, as they seek recognition, often for being the first to a story.

Wonder which will get most attention? [LINK REQUIRED]

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