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August 21 2012

14:00

Why Did So Many News Outlets Not Link to Pussy Riot Video?

The Russian punk band Pussy Riot must have done something really bad to merit a possible seven years in prison, I figured. Finding all descriptions of their behavior to be filled with euphemism, I wanted to see their offensive behavior myself.

Who do you turn to when you want to see the world as it is, rather than the world as others tell you it is? My parents would have turned on network television. Or read the Progress-Bulletin or Daily Report. I went to YouTube and searched for "PussyRiot" and watched what struck me as the video of the actions I had heard about second- and third-hand. The video, I thought, was edited in such a way that made both the church and the band look like victims, depending on your point of view. To me, that was a good indication of its authenticity.

But I don't really know, and I trust sources like the New York Times, and especially its reporters on the ground in Moscow, to tell me whether what I'm really seeing is accurate. So I next went to nytimes.com and its story. The Times had links to videos. But a quick look around the other five top news sites in the U.S showed that it was the only popular publication that linked to the videos of the band's action that landed it in prison for three months while awaiting trial. So why was the Times the only source to have linked to the video? And what does that news organization's unusual behavior mean?

a lack of links

The other sites -- Yahoo News, Huffington Post, ABC News, NBC News and USA Today -- failed me. These are sites that are both praised and vilified as "aggregators" or "MSM." But all made the same editorial decision -- and didn't help their audience see the key fact of this case for itself.

But I wonder why the link wasn't made? The people who work there are professionals. And I have no reason to believe they are more or less immoral than I am.

Going back more than a decade, academic studies have found that few news stories actually link to source information. In 2001, one in 23 stories about the Timothy McVeigh execution linked to external sources. And a 2010 study indicates that U.S. journalists are less inclined to link to foreign sources than domestic sources, with fewer than 1 percent of foreign new stories on U.S. news sites containing links in their stories.

So, why?

Two prominent academic studies seem to indicate that the presence of inbound and outbound links increase credibility in both professional and amateur sites. Are professional journalists unaware of those studies? Are they aware, but think they're bunk?

One study indicates that journalists don't link because they are concerned about the financial implications -- that users who leave the site will not return to drive up ad impressions. Another seems to indicate that U.S. journalists are particularly skeptical of foreign sources of news because they are less confident of their own ability to judge the credibility of foreign sources.

enhancing credibility

From my experience in online newsrooms, both those findings seem plausible. But they also seem incomplete. My own additional hypothesis is that hyperlinking has been left primarily to automation and that editors and reporters who've been asked for the last decade to "do more with less" have decided that links to original source material -- which, at least according to a few studies, enhance their credibility, are not worth their time.

But other studies have shown that hyperlinks in the text of a story distract readers -- even the small percentage of readers who click on the links -- and reduce reading comprehension. That said, I suspect the journalists who didn't include links to the Pussy Riots videos are completely unaware of such studies (which are summarized nicely throughout Nicholas Carr's book "The Shallows."

If there's credit to be given in The New York Times' decision to include the links in the story, then it goes to the reporter in Moscow, David Herzenhorn, according to three sources who work at the Times. The role that Herzenhorn played is important. This was a task not left to an editor or producer in New York, but one that the Moscow correspondent took upon himself. The links add to his credibility.

"I have to say I am completely floored that other news organizations would not link to the videos, since they explain so much about the story," Kyle Crichton, the editor who worked on the story, wrote to me in response to an email query.

My rather slack Friday afternoon efforts to obtain comment from other news organizations that didn't link to the videos yielded no responses. I still hope to hear from them in hopes of understanding whether the lack of links was merely an oversight or a conscious omission. Herzenhorn also did not reply to my email on late Friday.

The reporter -- and at this point he, rather than his employer, deserves credit for the links -- selected the more popular Russian-language versions on YouTube rather than the English subtitled versions, which had fewer views but would be more useful to the Times' English-language audience.

"There is some profanity on the soundtrack, so I presume that is why David chose not to include [the videos with English subtitles]," Crichton said in his email to me. "That strikes me as fair, since the text isn't as important as the overall spectacle of their 'performance.'"

the political impact of linking

I also wondered what the political impact of including such links might be. I've had
newsroom conversations about whether linking to a source constitutes endorsement. The modern version of this is manifested in newsroom social media policies that discourage journalists from re-tweeting information from sources and in Twitter bios that say "RT ≠ endorsement."

I teach my students, and write in Chapter 7 of "Producing Online News," that links in a story are akin to quotes. You're responsible for the facts of the source's statement, but not the opinions. And stories without links today seem as incomplete as stories without quotes from named sources have always been.

In foreign stories, though, links to banned material could have an effect on both the news
organization's ability to distribute news and on its reporters' ability to collect it. Crichton wasn't concerned.

"I don't think our including the videos will have any impact on our future ability to report in Russia," Crichton said in his email to me. "If it were Iran, maybe, but Russia isn't like that, yet."

What discussion to you have in your newsroom about including or excluding links? If you aren't having any, consider consulting with -- and funding -- the mass communication researchers who can help you make your journalism more credible, more memorable and more useful.

Related links:

April 20 2012

06:31

BBC regional sites to consider including links to hyperlocal blogs

Old BBC North identImage from MHP The Ident Zone - click to see in context

The BBC’s social media lead for the English Regions Robin Morley has invited requests from “reputable hyperlocal websites” who want links to their stories included in the BBC’s regional news websites.

Andy Mabbett writes that:

“Interested hyperlocal bloggers (in England only, for now, as that’s the extent of Robin’s remit) are therefore invited to submit details of their blog, with links to a couple of their recent news stories, including original content (no churnalism, please) in a comment below, for consideration by Robin. I must emphasise that, while he’s kindly agreed to consider including such links, no promises have been made. The emphasis is on news stories, not lobbying or party-political pieces.”

In a follow-up comment Morley added:

“We link to a variety of external sources in various different ways from our local sites – so expanding the pool is definitely something we’re keen to explore.”

The comments on the post are worth reading too. Will Perrin says of a previous meeting with the Controller Regions in Birmingham David Holdsworth that he “was clear that they should have been linking to [the Bourneville Village blog's coverage of the Cadbury takeover], as well as/instead of the Express and Star.”

If you know of a hyperlocal blog which should be getting credit from regional BBC news websites, post in the comments on Andy’s post or email Robin at robin.morley[at]bbc.co.uk

06:31

BBC regional sites to consider including links to hyperlocal blogs

Old BBC North identImage from MHP The Ident Zone - click to see in context

The BBC’s social media lead for the English Regions Robin Morley has invited requests from “reputable hyperlocal websites” who want links to their stories included in the BBC’s regional news websites.

Andy Mabbett writes that:

“Interested hyperlocal bloggers (in England only, for now, as that’s the extent of Robin’s remit) are therefore invited to submit details of their blog, with links to a couple of their recent news stories, including original content (no churnalism, please) in a comment below, for consideration by Robin. I must emphasise that, while he’s kindly agreed to consider including such links, no promises have been made. The emphasis is on news stories, not lobbying or party-political pieces.”

In a follow-up comment Morley added:

“We link to a variety of external sources in various different ways from our local sites – so expanding the pool is definitely something we’re keen to explore.”

The comments on the post are worth reading too. Will Perrin says of a previous meeting with the Controller Regions in Birmingham David Holdsworth that he “was clear that they should have been linking to [the Bourneville Village blog's coverage of the Cadbury takeover], as well as/instead of the Express and Star.”

If you know of a hyperlocal blog which should be getting credit from regional BBC news websites, post in the comments on Andy’s post or email Robin at robin.morley[at]bbc.co.uk

February 28 2012

09:12

8 common mistakes when writing for the web – and what to do about them

Image of post it notes by Anselm23 on FlickrImage by Anselm23 on Flickr

Here is a checklist covering 8 mistakes made repeatedly by first-time web writers, which I’ve put together for one of my classes. The idea is simple: if you answer ‘No’ to any of these, carry on to the accompanying guidance that follows underneath.

Checklist: are you doing the following?

  1. Getting straight to the most newsworthy, interesting piece of information in your first par?
  2. Linking to your source whenever you refer to a piece of information/fact?
  3. Linking phrases (e.g. “a report”) NOT putting in full URLs (e.g. “http://university.ac.uk/report”?
  4. Indenting quotes by using the blockquote option?
  5. Using brief pars – starting a new one for each new point?
  6. Using a literal headline that makes sense in search results and includes key words that people might be looking for, NOT general or punny headlines
  7. Splitting up your article with subheadings?
  8. Ending your post with a call to action and/or indication of what information is missing or what will happen next?

Solving it: 1. The first par

When you write the first draft of an article some people begin with a ‘warming up’ paragraph. Here’s a classic example:

“On Tuesday 14th February 2012, we went to the office of Bob Jones, for a brief discussion with a colleague…”


Ask yourself this: does your first par tell us anything new? Does it grab the reader and promise more? If it does neither then it needs rewriting.

Here are some examples of cutting to the key facts:

“A vice chancellor who sparked a political storm over his views on the social mix of degree students has been appointed England’s new university access tsar.”

Or, when your focus is an interview or guest post:

“Attempts to block the appointment of the new head of Offa, and changes to the tuition-fee regime, make higher education policy resemble an Alice-in-Wonderland world, says Mike Baker”

Or:

“A new London park, 70,000 volunteers, a home crowd spurring on British athletes… Sebastian Coe tells Emma Brockes why the 2012 Olympics are worth the money”

You can even start with the most colourful and attention-grabbing information gained in the interview, like so:

“If in February 1941 the commander of the German battlecruiser Gneisenau had decided to steam off and leave Peter Coe to his fate in an open lifeboat in the North Atlantic, the world might never have taken delivery of his son, Sebastian.”

In short, if your paragraph is warming up, chop it out entirely – and look at each paragraph to see which one is the best to start with. If your article is trying to cover more than one basic angle, consider splitting it into two separate, shorter, posts.

Don’t tell us how you got here

Another common mistake is to tell us about how you got to this point:

“At first I had this idea, and then X happened, and I realised Y, so I decided to write about what I’m about to write.”

Remember the reader doesn’t care how you got to this point – unless it’s a stunning story in itself. So cut to the chase instead:

“Here’s a list of some of the most informative and expert Twitter users in school sports”

Solving it: 2. and 3. Linking to your sources – and linking phrases, not URLs

Any mention of any information that you haven’t gathered in its raw form yourself should include a link to the source. For example:

“According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s official website, they define “non-completion” by…”

Should be linked to the source material as follows:

According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, they define “non-completion” by…”

Note that I’ve also removed “official website” – for two reasons:

  • Never link to a general homepage – always deep-link to the specific page containing the information or report you’re referring to
  • The link tells us it’s according to a webpage, you don’t need to repeat that

Here are some more examples:

  • “In September 2011 The Telegraph reported that…”
  • “John Smith told one blog that he…”
  • “While almost half of students don’t know about the policy…”
  • “Jane Jones said that”
  • “The head of teaching and learning at HEFCE is Heather Fry
  • “Michael Gove voted in favour of”

The more links your work contains, the more value it holds for users – it’s just good online journalism.

Solving it: 4. Formatting text: blockquotes, bullet lists, and subheadings

Online text is easier to read the more that it is broken up. Get to know the formatting panel just above the space where you write your post (shown below).

  • Use the quotation marks button to indent quotes.
  • Use bullet lists and numbered lists to break up your post when your content suits a list.
  • Select text and use the link button (the chain icon) to make it into a link
  • Use the ‘Format’ drop-down to create subheadings (Heading 2 is best – Heading 1 is used for the headline already)
  • If you’re pasting text from elsewhere (always put it in quotes!) use the ‘eraser’ icon to strip out formatting such as font, size, colour etc. (Or better still, paste it into the HTML view so no formatting is retained)


 

Solving it: 5. Splitting pars after every point is made

Compare the following:

“Firms and charities are to be invited to bid for a payment-by-results scheme to try to get “Neet” teenagers into work or training, in a project launched by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. The £126m scheme is aimed at 55,000 teenagers in England with poor qualifications who are currently not in education, employment or training. Mr Clegg says it is about “getting them out of the living room, away from the telly and into the world of work”. Labour says it won’t help the majority.”

And this:

“Firms and charities are to be invited to bid for a payment-by-results scheme to try to get “Neet” teenagers into work or training, in a project launched by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

“The £126m scheme is aimed at 55,000 teenagers in England with poor qualifications who are currently not in education, employment or training.

“Mr Clegg says it is about “getting them out of the living room, away from the telly and into the world of work”.

“Labour says it won’t help the majority.”

That’s from the BBC, an exemplar of good web writing.

Try to keep pars short, and start new ones whenever a new point is being made.

Solving it: 6. and 7. Headlines and subheadings – keep them specific and literal

Imagine what your headline looks like in the middle of a bunch of search results, or on Twitter. Imagine what it looks like to someone who has never read your site before, doesn’t know you, or your culture, jokes and phrases.

Here’s an example of a bad headline:

Useful contacts for everyone

Again, imagine this in search engine results. Twitter contacts in what field? They’re clearly not for “everyone” but something specific – in this case, the Olympics, so this is much better:

20 essential Olympics Twitter contacts

Here’s one that’s even worse:

An Update

This tells us nothing unless we are already following the blog – and even then, it doesn’t tell us whether this is interesting or merely functional. Try this instead:

Update: unemployment up; Grayling’s 3 reasons; we want your questions!

Don’t be afraid of long headlines – look at how the Daily Mail use them (extremely successfully) on their website.

Try and use key words and phrases in your headline so that search engines understand what they’re about. This, for example, is bad:

Match report

This is much better:

Rooney scores 4 in Roma Champions League clash

…Because what will people be searching for? Rooney perhaps; Champions League; Roma. They might even be searching for “hat-trick” or “video”. Think of how people search, and write your headline to answer that (assuming your content does too).

Subheadings

The same rules apply to subheadings. These serve two purposes: to break up your text so people can find their place in them more easily; and to help search engines understand your content.

They should therefore be mini-headlines, with keywords relevant to the pars that follow.

Solving it: 8. Ending your post – online is interactive

One of the key ways in which online journalism differs from print or broadcast is that you are not dealing with an audience: you are dealing with potential collaborators and sources who can improve your journalism with a single comment.

The traditional way of ending articles, then – implying that the story is finished and the reader can move on to what’s on page 5 – does not apply.

Instead you should try to leave room for the user to contribute in some way. Here are some examples:

  • “This is the latest in a series of interviews with Olympic sponsors. You can read the rest here, and follow future updates on our Facebook page, Twitter account, and mailing list.”
  • “Next week we’ll be interviewing Graham Gordon on his role in the process. If you have any questions you’d like us to ask, please post a comment, or email us at…”
  • “Have we missed anything? Please let us know in the comments”
  • “What we still don’t know is how much of this money reached the clubs. If you can help us find out, get in touch at…”
  • “We’ll be discussing this at our next meetup at … – sign up to attend on our Meetup page.”
  • “We’re looking for people to contribute to the blog on this issue. If you’re interested, get in touch at…”

July 20 2011

19:45

AP will link back to newspapers who get scoops

News organizations that break big stories will soon get a little more credit — and maybe even a little traffic — from The Associated Press. Beginning Aug. 1, whenever the AP picks up a local story from a member for rewriting and distribution, the text of AP’s story will include a link back to the original report.

For example: When the Boston Globe reported that TV producers had doctored the CBS broadcast of the July 4th fireworks show, the AP picked it up and the story went national. The Globe got credit on the hundreds of news sites that carried the story — but no link back to the original story. That’ll change.

“The days are long past that you’re writing a story and you’re only thinking about…rewriting it so that you can put it into the paper,” said Martin Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who brought the idea to the AP. “Why spend the time rewriting? Why not link back?”

Pickups will now include a parenthetical bit.ly link to the original story, in addition to the credit. So in the fireworks story, you might see: “According to the Boston Globe report (http://bit.ly/pDHZ6h)…” The change will be most noticeable on state wires, where pickups are common. (Most of the AP’s national content is original reporting. Less than 2 percent of the national wire is material picked up from members.)

Kaiser said he has been pushing the AP for years to act more like an aggregator and less like a rewrite desk. And while this new policy doesn’t directly save AP staffers the time they spend rewriting a member’s copy, it’s a step toward more transparent credit and could drive some marginal amount of traffic to local news sites. 

Kaiser remembers breaking stories at smaller papers and seeing them edited, sanitized, and byline-less on the wire the next day. Several years ago, the AP added an “Information From” footnote to credit the news organization. Then the footnote got a link to that organization’s home page. About a year ago, the AP started crediting newsrooms in the body of the story.

Because the AP is a cooperative, it has no legal obligation to credit its members. But “that’s a legal point, not a journalistic one,” said Mike Oreskes, AP’s senior managing editor.

“We came to the conclusion last year that proper journalistic practice was to credit the member newspaper in all cases where an article was picked up, especially in an Internet age when the origins of information are really important to understand,” Oreskes said.

Oreskes said the linking rule does not change the AP’s existing attribution standards. “Nothing about this change alters our existing policy on attributing to other organizations information that we haven’t independently reported. Nor does it change our policy to give credit to another organization that broke a story first, even when we match it or advance it through our own reporting,” he said in a memo to staff.

The AP tested several link-shortening services, Oreskes said, before settling on Bit.ly. He was sold on the compactness of Bit.ly URLs (20 characters), the stability of the service, and the fact that Bit.ly links never expire (as long as Bit.ly is in business, anyway).

While more credit for original reporting is a good thing, and the Jeff Jarvis/link economy school of thought should welcome AP’s new policy, it risks running into one of the biggest potential roadblocks of any large-scale technological change at news organizations: the sometimes cruddy back-end systems that run news websites and print workflows.

The AP has been testing the idea in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and there’ve been some kinks. The URLs cross the wire in plain text, without the familiar-to-nerds <a href=”…”> HTML code that makes a link clickable. News sites will have to handle that digital chore, either leaving the links unlinked, automating that bit of HTML on each story, or dealing with the code by hand. (The AP’s change appears to have broken the code on several news sites.) And some newspapers may not see much value in putting URLs in to their print products, which would mean someone stripping them out in production. Oreskes said the AP will listen to feedback from members and continue tinkering with the policy to get it right.

The AP’s full staff memo follows. (“Elvis,” by the way, refers to the AP’s internal content-management system.)

Colleagues,

Last year, we introduced a new policy for the crediting of other news organizations in our reporting. The goal was to introduce consistency into our proud practice of being transparent in our handling of information that originated elsewhere than in our own reporting.

Since that time, several of our newspaper members have asked us to take an additional step in offering additional credit when we “pick up” a story from them.

In addition to offering a link to the contributing member’s home page at the end of a text story in the “Information From” tag, they have asked that a direct link to the actual story from which the pick-up originated be placed in the text of the AP version.

We have tested this practice since the start of the year, and are ready to enact it as AP policy starting Aug. 1.

This new policy only applies to what we call a “straight pick-up” — when the entirety of the story is derived from a single member’s contribution. These are found most often on the domestic state print/online and broadcast wires, but on rare occasion move nationally and beyond.

As you are aware, AP sells only a selection of its staff-generated international and national news stories to Google and other commercial customers. A very small slice of this material sold to commercial customers— less than 2 percent— are picked up from member newspapers, and they typically are scoops credited to the papers.

Stories from member newspapers make up a larger piece of AP’s state wires — but the state wires are not available to Google and others outside the AP membership.

Nothing about this change alters our existing policy on attributing to other organizations information that we haven’t independently reported. Nor does it change our policy to give credit to another organization that broke a story first, even when we match it or advance it through our own reporting.

We should provide this new direct link attribution whenever we pick up a story from any single AP member, newspaper or broadcaster. (It’s important to note that we shouldn’t write a “straight pick-up” from a non-member news organization, even with credit.) It applies equally to stories that are limited to APNewsNows and those we expand into longer versions, and to spot stories as well as enterprise and investigative pieces.

As always, our standards editor, Tom Kent, is available to help think through the application of this new policy. In addition, David Scott, who oversaw the testing of this in Central Region, will be happy to consult. We’ll schedule a few WebEx tutorials on the new policy for later this month.

Best,

Mike Oreskes

Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News

Direct Linking FAQ

Q. In the United States, we’ve long given attribution to members with the “Information From” tag. What’s changed?

A. The way we consume information has changed, driven in no small part by the Internet and news online. Our members increasingly want us to drive readers to the specific content they have shared with the cooperative, and this is a way we can comply with those requests.

Q. Should we still use the “Information From” tag?

A. Yes. By using both, we address the concerns of members who want the direct link in the text and those who prefer the homepage link at a story’s conclusion.

Q. The “Information From” tag is generated automatically by Elvis [editorial system]. Will the new direct link also be inserted into our text automatically?

A. No. You will need to copy and paste the URL to the story into the text manually, using bit.ly to shorten the link.

Q: What is bit.ly?

A: bit.ly is a service that takes a long URL (and direct links can be very long) and shortens it into something that fits much more neatly in a text story. There are several tools that make creating bit.ly links quite easy, and they’ll be explained during the WebEx tutorials.

Q: What if the member has a paywall?

A: In those instances, the link will generally direct a reader to a page informing them the story they seek is behind a paywall and explaining how they can purchase access to that content. That will work for the purposes of this policy.

Q: What if our direct link gets around a member’s paywall?

A: If you find that to be the case, or receive any other complaints about this new approach, please email the member’s information to Tom Kent and your chief of bureau.

Q: Sometimes our reporting goes so far beyond the other organization’s report that AP’s story is substantially our work. In such a case, should we still provide a link to the member’s story?

A: No. We should only provide a direct link in text stories that are substantially crafted from a single member’s contribution.

Q: We often supplement a pick-up with some original reporting, such as to call an attorney for comment or to update the condition of a patient. Should we still provide the direct link in those cases?

A: Yes. In such an instance, the substance of the story is still derived from a single member’s contribution and should get the credit.

Q: What if I combine information from two or more members into a single pickup?

A: Do not provide a direct link in these instances. Instead, provide credit for the reporting offered by each member in the text of the story per the AP’s general policy on crediting.

Q: Often in a breaking news story, we begin coverage with a straight pickup that evolves over time into an AP story. Should we still include the direct link if we expect that to happen?

A: Yes. Include the link for as long as the text story remains a straight pick-up from a single member. Drop the link at the point the story evolves, but continue to include a “first reporting by” credit in the text on merits.

Q: What if I pick up a story from a print edition or an electronic carbon, before the story is posted online? Do I need to go back and add the link later?

A: No. Please check to see if there is an online version, but be quick about it. If there’s not, move on to the next story. If there is, please add the link.

Q. Does this policy apply to U.S. broadcast as well as newspaper/online copy?

Yes.

New Pickup Crediting Example

BC-WI–Milwaukee Police-Complaints, 1st Ld-Writethru Report: 3 Milwaukee police officers still wear badges despite sexual misconduct complaints

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Three Milwaukee police officers who were disciplined after women accused them of on-duty sexual misconduct are still wearing badges.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sunday that their cases show that without a criminal conviction, officers who are the subject of sexual misconduct complaints deemed credible by the department can keep their jobs even if the police chief wants them fired.

The Journal Sentinel report (http://bit.ly/gCChEq) said its investigation found that one of the officers, Scott D. Charles, served a 60-day suspension and was later promoted to sergeant. The other two, Reginald L. Hampton and Milford Adams, were fired but reinstated after appealing to the Fire and Police Commission, a civilian board that has the power to overturn punishments imposed by the chief.

Chief Edward Flynn said he has no choice but to live with the commission’s decisions.

“The decision was made by higher authority that they are competent to be officers,” Flynn said. “It’s my responsibility to make sure they’re properly supervised and are held accountable.” …

For Milwaukee police officers, it’s up to the Fire and Police Commission to decide if the “just cause” standard has been met. Commissioners conduct their own investigation but can also consider what happened in the internal affairs investigation, said Michael G. Tobin, who has been executive director of the Fire and Police Commission since November 2007. ___ Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

May 20 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: What Twitter does to us, Google News gets more local, and making links routine

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Twitter on the brain: Last week, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller got a rise out of a lot of folks online with one of the shortest of his 21 career tweets: “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” Keller revealed the purpose of his social experiment this week in a column arguing, in so many words, that Twitter may be dulling your humanity, and probably making you stupid, too. Here’s the money quote: “But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.”

This, as you might imagine, did not go over particularly well online. There were a couple strains of reaction: Business Insider’s Henry Blodget and All Twitter’s Lauren Dugan argued that Twitter may indeed be changing us, but for the good, by helping make previously impossible connections.

Alexia Tsotsis of TechCrunch and Mike Masnick of Techdirt countered Keller by saying that while Twitter isn’t built for deep conversations, it is quite good at providing an entry point for such discussion: “What you see publicly posted on Twitter and Facebook is just the tip of the conversation iceberg,” Tsotsis said. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, meanwhile, defended Twitter’s true social nature, and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci gave a fantastic breakdown of what Twitter does and doesn’t do culturally and socially.

Two of the most eloquent responses were provided by Nick Bilton, one of Keller’s own employees, and by Gizmodo’s Mat Honan. Bilton pointed out that our brains have shown a remarkable ability to adapt quickly to new technologies without sacrificing old capacities. (Be sure to check out Keller’s response afterward.)

Honan made a similar argument: Keller, he said, is confusing the medium with the message, and Twitter, like any technology, is what you make it. “If you choose to do superficial things there, you will have superficial experiences. If you use it to communicate with others on a deeper level, you can have more meaningful experiences that make you smarter, build lasting relationships, and generally enhance your life,” Honan wrote.

Google gets more local with news: Google News unveiled a few interesting changes in the past week, starting with the launch of “News near you.” Google has sorted news by location for a while now, but this feature will allow smartphone users to automatically get local news wherever they are. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Rowinski explained why newspapers should be worried about Google moving further onto their local-news turf, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram criticized newspapers for not coming up with like this themselves.

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, on the other hand, said Google’s feature is still in need of some human curation to go with its algorithmic aggregation. That’s an area in which local newspapers can still dominate, he said, but it’ll require some technological catchup, as well as a willingness to get over fears about linking to competitors.

Another change, not publicized by Google News but spotted by the folks at Search Engine Land, was the addition of an option to allow users to filter out blogs and press releases from their results. This raised the question, what exactly does Google consider a blog? Google told Search Engine Land it relies on a variety of factors to make that decision, especially self-identification. Mathew Ingram ripped this classification, and urged Google to put everything that contains news together in Google News and let readers sort it out. (Former Lab writer Zach Seward wrote about the problems with Google News’ blog label back in 2009.)

Fitting linking into news’ workflow: A discussion about linking has been simmering on Twitter on and off over the past few weeks, and it began to come together into something useful this week. This round of the conversation started with a post by web thinker and scholar Doc Searls, who wondered why news organizations don’t link out more often. In the comments, the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer suggested that one reason is that many newspapers’ CMS’s and workflows are print-centric, making linking logistically difficult.

CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson responded that the workflow issue isn’t much of an excuse, saying, as he put it on Twitter: “At this point ‘linking’ has been around for twenty years. The fact that this is STILL a workflow issue is almost worse than not caring.” This kicked off a sprawling debate on Twitter, aptly chronicled via Storify by Mathew Ingram and Alex Byers. Ingram also wrote a post responding to a few of the themes of resistance of links, particularly the notion that information on the web is inferior to information gained by old-fashioned reporting.

British journalist Kevin Anderson took on the workflow issue in particular, noting how outdated many newspaper CMS’s are and challenging them to catch up technologically: “It’s an industrial workflow operating in a digital age. It’s really only down to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking that allows such a patently inefficient process to persist.” Publish2′s Scott Karp gave an idea for a solution to the CMS mess.

AOL’s continued makeover: Another week, another slew of personnel moves at AOL. PaidContent’s David Kaplan reported that AOL is hiring “a bunch” of new (paid) editors and shuffling some current employees around after its layoff of hundreds this spring. Overall, Kaplan wrote, this is part of the continued effort to put the Huffington Post’s stamp on AOL’s editorial products.

One of the AOL entities most affected by the shifts is Seed, which had been a freelance network, but will now fall under AOL’s advertising area as a business-to-business product. Saul Hansell, who was hired in 2009 to run Seed, is moving to HuffPo to edit its new “Big News” features. In a blog post, Hansell talked about what this means for HuffPo and for Seed.

Meanwhile, the company is also rolling out AOL Industry, a set of B2B sites covering energy, defense, and government. But wait, that’s not all: AOL’s Patch is launching 33 new sites in states targeting the 2012 election. The hyperlocal news site Street Fight also reported that Patch is urging its editors to post more often, and a group of independent local news sites is banding together to tell the world that they are not Patch, nor anything like it.

Reading roundup: As always, plenty of other stuff to get to this week.

— We mentioned a Pew report’s reference to the Drudge Report’s influence in last week’s review, and this week The New York Times’ David Carr marveled at Drudge’s continued success without many new-media bells and whistles. Poynter’s Julie Moos looked at Drudge’s traffic over the years, while the Washington Post disputed Pew’s numbers. ZDNet’s David Gewirtz had five lessons Drudge can teach the rest of the media world.

— A few paid-content items: A Nielsen survey on what people are willing to pay for various mobile services, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds on The New York Times’ events marketing for its pay plan, and the Lab’s Justin Ellis on paid-content lessons from small newspapers.

— A couple of tablet-related items: Next Issue Media, a joint effort of five publishers to sell magazines on tablets, released its first set of magazines on Google Android-powered Samsung Galaxy. And here at the Lab, Ken Doctor expounded on the iPad as the “missing link” in news’ digital evolution.

— Columbia University announced it will launch a local news site this summer focusing on accountability journalism, and the Lab’s Megan Garber gave some more details about what Columbia’s doing with it.

— The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner had an interesting conversation with Slate’s David Plotz about Slate’s aggregation efforts, and in response, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case for valuing aggregation skills in journalists.

— This weekend’s think piece is a musing by Maria Bustillos at The Awl on Wikipedia, Marshall McLuhan, communal knowledge-making, and the fate of the expert. Enjoy.

April 13 2011

16:00

Gateway and takeaway: Why Quickish wants to cut the clutter and help readers get to the good stuff

It can be tough for a verbose writer to embrace the short form.

This is important, because in doing an email interview with Dan Shanoff about Quickish — his new site that offers (near)-instant analysis and news on sports — it quickly became clear the man is a lover of words. Shanoff burned through more than 3,000 words about Quickish, which finds its focus through short, deliberate analysis and lots of links. (Full transcript here.)

But most Quickish posts are at tweet length or not much longer — and that restraint makes it as much a conduit for news as it is a case study in why short- and long-form writing aren’t mutually exclusive. What both share, and what Quickish trades in, is “the takeaway,” as in the essential point of a story/event/game/trend, or the answer to the question all readers ask: “Why am I reading this?” It’s that need for understanding, combined with the accelerated pace of media, that Shanoff sees that as the underpinning behind news consumption and its the guiding principal of Quickish.

“The best reporters and pundits know that the real traction isn’t the commodified tidbit of breaking news — this person was traded, this person threw a key interception, this person said something provocative — but the entirely valuable (and hard-to-copy) piece of insight that helps us understand a story better,” Shanoff told me. “This new competition — not for the scoop, but for the fast take — forces everyone to raise their level of instant analysis to cut through the clutter. That the noise level might be raised by everyone rushing to say something is ok — as long as you have reliable filters (like Quickish hopes to be) set up to cancel out the crap.”

If we were to build a periodic table for new media, the elements that make Quickish work would be speed, accessibility, and brevity — all in the service of making sense of a news story. Quickish is what happens when you try to take a coherent focus on those events that everyone is tweeting about — it’s March Madness, the Oscars, the Super Bowl, or election night, but all the time. Quickish embraces the alternate-channel ethos that has developed around how we experience events and is built around that. A reader can get what everyone is talking about, but with the added bonus of context and insight, and they could follow it wholesale or dip in as needed.

“Once you recognize the ascendancy of short-form content — and, by the way, that doesn’t preclude longer-form content (at all!) — the next thing you build on top of that is a system to help people keep up with all that great content, to cut through the increasingly endless clutter that keeps you from seeing the really good stuff,” he wrote.

“And so depending on what the biggest topics are, to the widest possible audience, Quickish editors are looking for the most interesting short-form analysis or conversation about that topic — it doesn’t have to be part of a full-blown column; it could be a killer ‘money quote’ of a short blog post or a Tweet or a message board post or video; we’re source-agnostic. It could be from a ‘national’ outlet or a local/topical reporter or blogger with particular expertise,” he wrote.

This would be a good time to mention that in many ways what Shanoff is talking about is not new in journalism, we’ve come to talk about aggregation a lot in terms of the future of news (apologies to Mr. Keller). There is no doubt that what Quickish provides falls neatly into the category of aggregation. It’s Techmeme or Mediagazer, but for sports. Shanoff, though, is not a big fan of the “A” word.

“Why I wince at ‘aggregation’ is that it doesn’t necessarily distinguish between ‘dumb’ aggregation of automated, algorithm-based systems (that inevitably fail some critical test of judgment) and the ‘smart’ selective, qualified recommendation that comes from an editor (whether that editor is Quickish or a newspaper/magazine editor or someone smart you follow on Twitter or a blogger or anyone else who actively applies judgment whether something is worthwhile or not). Everything on Quickish has been recommended with intention; to me, that’s much more active — and valuable — than a system built on more passively ‘aggregating.’”

If Shanoff has his way the site would be powered primarily off recommendations from readers. News sites large and small typically have some call out for tips, but Quickish seems to have tip-based updates baked in thanks to its Twitter-like nature. Credit for stories or takes gets a nod similar to retweets or hat/tips, and that’s something that Shanoff said is a result of Quickish relying on Twitter as a source, but also wanting a more transparent interaction with readers. It also tracks with another basic idea behind Quickish: The link as the most powerful asset connected to a story or post.

This also tends to build strong connections with readers who can feel a buy-in by contributing to a site. What you end up with — hopefully — is a recommendation-go-round, where stories and links get tipped to your site from readers, readers direct their friends to the site, and the process repeats in perpetuity.

“It is a long-standing tenet of online journalism that you want to encourage readers to make just ‘one more click’ within your site after the page they land on. With Quickish, we are thrilled if that ‘one more click’ is to some great piece of longform journalism that we have recommended. Because if you appreciate that experience as a reader, you are much more likely to give us another try tomorrow or when the next big news happens; isn’t that much more valuable than gaming them into sticking around? Here is a fascinating and powerful stat we have never made public: Quickish readers actively click through to one of our recommended links on nearly half of all total visits. Every other visit results in the reader clicking on a Quickish recommendation,” he wrote.

Considering all of this, Shanoff said the site’s design, minimal and stripped down, is closely attuned to the the content it provides and the expectations of the audience. Shanoff recognizes that readers are coming into news from various destination and on different devices, and that feeds an immediate expectation, it’s the “Why am I reading this” question all over again. Shanoff said for many publishers the focus is less on utility and more on squeezing the most value out of visits to a site. His take: “Don’t be greedy.”

There are two ways to try to engage people: You can try to force them — blitz or confuse or harangue them, in many cases — to try to keep clicking. Is that increase from 1.5 page views per visit to 2.0 really worth it if the reaction from the reader is, “Wow, that really wasted my time.” How is that kind of publisher cynicism a way to create a meaningful relationship with a reader?

The other way is to make the experience so simple, so self-evidently useful, so valuable, so easy that the reader might only give you (in Quickish’s case) that one page per visit for now, but they will come back every day… or a couple times a day… or tell their friends… or trust your recommendations… and ultimately have a deeper relationship with you when you introduce new products and features.

February 02 2011

21:00

“Serendipity and surprise”: How will engagement work for The Daily?

All of us here at the Lab watched the unveiling of The Daily (even those of us who are on a beach sipping umbrella drinks).

But there was something that News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch said that seems significant now that the genie is out of the bottle. He said this about today’s readers:

“They expect content tailored to their specific interest to be available any time, anywhere. Too often this means that news is restricted, only to interest that have been predefined. What we are losing today are the opportunities for true news discovery. The magic of newspapers and great blogs lies in their serendipity and surprise, and the deft touch of a good editor.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, but what is interesting to me is how it jibes with what we are learning about how engagement will work on The Daily — specifically how they plan to use comments and social media, and to access the greater Internet.

The Daily deserves credit for making strides to meet expectations of social functionality we see on news sites: You can share stories with your friends via email, Twitter and Facebook, and you can leave comments within the app. (Something we’re particularly interested in here at The Lab is audio comments. Seems to open up all kinds of questions — for example, what do trolls sound like? And can the comments be turned into more content, a comments podcast, perhaps? But I digress.)

Similar to The Washington Post iPad app, The Daily will be able to deploy Twitter feeds in stories or other features. Further, editor Jesse Angelo said today, they plan on linking out and pulling in HTML5 content as needed.

As Jon Miller, the News Corp. digital chief presenting The Daily, said, “The Daily is not an island. It definitely will be a part of the entire web discourse and the social world.”

The Daily seems to fit that description, but I can’t help but wonder: Can you really link to stories from The Daily? In the questions following the demo, Miller and Angelo gave the impression that access to The Daily from the greater web would be, well, tricky, to say the least. Stories shared from the app would be free (meaning if I send you a link from The Daily, you can see it). But direct from the homepage, apparently: not. (This seems similar to the balance the NYT has struck between walled garden and open web: side-door entry, through blogs and social media, leads to the same thing as front-door. But it’s the front door where you’ll be asked to pay for admission.) Angelo gave the impression that select content from the app would be mirrored online, but not the whole publication — or even the whole piece of content.

For The Daily to succeed, of course, it’ll need subscribers. But does that mean its Twitter feed, Facebook page, and blog will be used to engage readers — or simply as a promotion device?

So the question then becomes: How will the “serendipity and surprise” that Murdoch talked about actually work?

In a way, it would seem that The Daily wants to incorporate the web from inside the app, but not from outside it, taking it a step further than the “walled garden” approach we’ve seen in some apps. The app (if you’ll allow a Minnesotan transgression) reminds me of the Chaska Community Center, an indoor, one-stop destination that includes (deep breath) a soccer/multipurpose field, hockey rink, two gymnasiums, workout facilities, a movie theater, and swimming pool complete with a water slide several stories high. In other words, a lot of shiny, cool stuff that you can use all under one roof.

As an iPad-only newspaper, The Daily is clearly betting on people spending a lot of time on the device, and in some ways that seems to harken back to the glory days of subscribers reading every section of the paper. It wants to move away from the “drive-by” audience, instead rewarding subscribers for their loyalty.

Reader engagement, at least as we’ve come to think of it, requires an open and two-way exchange, one that can benefit publishers by potentially creating a stronger connection with readers while putting their content in front of more eyeballs. As best as I can tell, story sharing and linking will have to come primarily from subscribers out to others, which would create limited opportunities for those “I didn’t know I needed that before now” moments of serendipity. Murdoch noted, during the launch, the benefits of “true opportunities for news discovery.” Whether The Daily will be able to create those, though, remains to be seen.

December 20 2010

19:00

Scott Karp: Clay Shirky’s right that syndication’s getting disrupted — but not in the ways he thinks it is

Editor’s Note: For our year-end series of predictions for 2011, we started out with a piece by Clay Shirky in which he predicted “widespread disruption” for the traditional syndication model in journalism. As Clay put it: “This kind of linking, traffic driving, and credit are natively web-like ideas, but they are also inimical to the older logic of syndication. Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs.”

Not everyone agrees. Scott Karp runs Publish2, which is trying to build its own syndication model for journalism. Here’s Scott’s response to Clay and his own set of predictions for syndication in 2011.

Clay Shirky predicts that in 2011 traditional news syndication will see widespread disruption. I couldn’t agree more. But I don’t think the disruption will happen the way Clay describes it.

Clay’s prediction assumes that news consumption will continue its shift from traditional media to the traditional desktop web, where the hyperlink rules and news consumers bounce from hyperlinked page to hyperlinked page and from site to site to site. I think that assumption is wrong. In 2011, we’ll see open acknowledgement of what has long been understood about the traditional desktop web as a platform for consuming news content — it sucks.

The desktop web has been a revolutionary platform in terms of access to information, the democratization of publishing, and the socialization of media. But as a medium for consuming news content, from a user interface and user experience perspective, it’s problematic at best and downright awful at worst. News consumption has begun a major shift from the traditional desktop web to apps for touch tablets for a simple reason — the user experience and user interface are so much better, as the recent RJI survey of iPad users reflects. Consumers are choosing tablet apps over the traditional desktop web based on the quality of the user experience and the overall content “package.”

News organizations are already shifting their strategies to take advantage of that consumer shift. But few have thought about the role of syndication in news apps. With the immersive, hands-on experience of a tablet news app, the value of syndication changes entirely. Apps that deliver nothing but one news organization’s content will not compare favorably with the content richness of the web, no matter how good the UI is. And apps that bounce users around from site to site with an in-app browser, mimicking the traditional desktop web model, will fail for precisely the reason why users chose the app in the first place.

But news apps that can deliver full content, curated from a wide range of sources, within a cohesive, optimized — even breakthrough — UI for news consumption, will win because users will have the best of both worlds. Syndication in news apps will not be about republishing news that everyone else has. It will be about combining curated news with original content in order to create consumer packages that are deeply engaging and in many cases worth paying for. With this shift, news organizations will stop ceding to aggregators the huge value creation of curating and packaging news. Instead, news organizations will start defining their editorial brands as curators as much as they define them as original content creators.

It’s important to note that this new paradigm for news consumption isn’t necessarily anti-web on the back end. It can work with an HTML5 site that creates the same immersive UX/UI as a platform-native app, and can be distributed with an app front end via app stores to support the news org’s business model. Web pages are also still necessary for links shared via social networks. But for a news consumer’s primary daily news consumption — for news orgs they have a direct relationship with — syndication that includes the full content in an immersive app experience will be an essential driver of success.

The other reality that Clay overlooks, on the other end of the news evolution, is that syndication for print newspapers still matters because the print product is generating the cash that’s funding the digital transformation. Reducing the cost of filling the news hole in print with disruptive syndication models will generate more cash for digital. In the near term, that will have a significant impact on how the business of syndication is reshaped.

In that context, here are four predictions for how traditional news syndication will be disrupted in 2011:

Social network for news distribution

Traditional syndication is based on a hub-and-spoke model, where a newswire middleman takes in content from many sources, combines it with original content, and redistributes it. This is an inefficient, obsolete model and will be replaced by a model that has proven wildly successful in the consumer world — the social network.

News organizations have already been forming direct distribution networks to route around the traditional newswire middleman. In 2011, these networks will evolve beyond ad hoc email distribution to become truly scalable in a way that only a Facebook-like platform can enable. News organizations will create a network of trusted sources, the equivalent of “friends,” but where the relationships are based on distribution and the affiliation of editorial brands. I call this the “Content Graph,” the analogue to Facebook’s “Social Graph.”

The business of syndication and news distribution will be reshaped by the power of network effects. Why is that important? Watch this Sean Parker talk.

Human editorial judgment redux

Contrary to Clay’s devaluing of the wire editor’s judgment in selecting content, the value of human curation is actually becoming more important in defining the value of news brands. Google’s algorithm has dominated news distribution on the web (ask any news site what percentage of traffic comes from Google), but it’s being overtaken by social curation — links shared through social networks (ask any news site what percentage of traffic comes from Facebook and Twitter).

The same will happen with news organizations, as editors curate their Content Graph and create better editorial products than any algorithm can ever hope to create.

What social networks have proven is that people value most the judgment of other people they trust. You can trust a friend. You can trust the editor of your favorite news publication. But it’s about people. Syndication based on human curation will prove far more valuable to consumers than syndication based on faceless algorithms.

Free content disrupts again, but differently

The news industry has been disrupted by the explosion of content on the web and having to compete with free sources. A new model for syndication turns this disruption on its head by enabling news organizations to publish free content from high quality web publishers in exchange for branding and links back (a model that Yahoo, for example, has used for years).

News organizations can also barter content with partners to trade the value of content they have already paid to produce for content that they need. Syndication based on a barter economy will be extremely disruptive to traditional newswires charging for content.

Free syndicated content will also help the print product generate more cash in the near-term. (Never underestimate the importance of cash flow in business transformation.)

News organizations take back control

News organizations will increasingly take back control over how their own content is syndicated. This begins with taking back their rights from newswire middlemen, so they can have full control over the business strategy for their content syndication, whether they choose to barter, sell, or keep some content out of the syndication market entirely.

News organizations will also take control over how their content is packaged by aggregators, starting by taking control of their RSS feeds. The first big realization will be that RSS is dead as a consumer technology but has growing value as a B2B syndication mechanism. News organizations will start to take down the consumer feeds from their websites as they realize 99.9 percent of their audience who wants their “feed” is following them on Facebook or Twitter.

Instead of working ad hoc with aggregators and other partners, with no control over their B2B RSS feeds, news organizations will look for ways to more efficiently manage the commercial syndication of their content through a common platform that gives them both control and network scale.

December 13 2010

15:00

What will 2011 bring for journalism? Clay Shirky predicts widespread disruptions for syndication

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we at the Lab decided to ask some of the smartest people we know what they thought 2011 would bring for journalism. We’re very pleased that so many of them agreed to share their predictions with us.

Over the next few days, you’ll hear from Steve Brill, Vivian Schiller, Michael Schudson, Markos Moulitsas, Kevin Kelly, Geneva Overholser, Adrian Holovaty, Jakob Nielsen, Evan Smith, Megan McCarthy, David Fanning, Matt Thompson, Bob Garfield, Matt Haughey, and more.

We also want to hear your predictions: take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results later this week.

To start off our package of predictions, here’s Clay Shirky. Happy holidays.

The old news business model has had a series of shocks in the 15 or so years we’ve had a broadly adopted public web. The first was the loss of geographic limits to competition (every outlet could reach any reader, listener or viewer). Next was the loss of progressive layers of advertising revenue (the rise of Monster and craigslist et alia, as well as the “analog dollars to digital dimes” problem). Then there is the inability to charge readers easily without eviscerating the advertising rate-base (the failure of micropayments and paywalls as general-purpose solutions).

Next up for widespread disruption, I think, is syndication, a key part of the economic structure of the news business since the founding of Havas in the early 19th century. As with so many parts of a news system based on industrial economics, that model is now under pressure.

As Jonathan Stray pointed out in “The Google/China Hacking Case” and Nick Carr pointed out in “Google in the Middle,” the numerator of organizations producing original news is tiny — absolutely tiny — compared to the denominator of those re-publishing that news. Stray notes that only 7 of the 121 outlets running the China story were based mainly on original reporting, while the vast majority was just wire service copy. Carr similarly pointed out that Google news showed 11,264 separate outlets for the Somali pirate story in 2009, almost all of them re-running the same couple of stories. (I was similarly surprised, last year, to discover that syndicated content outweighed locally created content in my old hometown paper by a 2:1 margin.)

The idea that syndication should be different in a digital era has been around for a while now. Jeff Jarvis’s formulation — “Do what you do best and link to the rest” — dates from 2007, and the AP started talking about about holding back some stories from subscribers in order to drive their PageRank up last year. What could make 2011 the year of general restructuring is Google’s attempt to give credit where credit is due, in the words of their blog post, by offering tags that identify original and preferred sources for syndicated stories.

This kind of linking, traffic driving, and credit are natively web-like ideas, but they are also inimical to the older logic of syndication. Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs. When news outlets were segmented by geography, having live human beings sitting around in ten thousand separate markets deciding which stories to pull off the wire was a service. Now it’s just a cost.

Giving credit where credit is due will reward original work, whether scoops, hot news, or unique analysis or perspective. This will be great for readers. It may not, however, be so great for newspapers, or at least not for their revenues, because most of what shows up in a newspaper isn’t original or unique. It’s the first four grafs of something ripped off the wire and lightly re-written, a process repeated countless times a day with no new value being added to the story.

Taken to its logical conclusion, giving credit where credit is due will mean things like 11,260 or so outlets getting out of the business or re-running the same three versions of the Somali pirate story. If Reuters has the best version, why shouldn’t people just read it from Reuters?

Like other forces brought to bear by the web, there’s no getting around this one — rewards for originality are what we want, not just as consumers but as citizens — but creating an environment that generates those rewards will also mean dismantling the syndication model we’ve had since Havas first set up shop.

October 08 2010

13:10

BBC new linking guidelines issued – science journals mentioned

The BBC have just emailed new linking guidelines to their staff. They stipulate that linking is “essential” to online journalism and in one slide (it’s a PowerPoint document) titled ‘If you remember nothing else’ highlight how linking will change:

What we used to do…

  • Lists of archive news stories
  • Homepages only on external websites
  • No inline linking in news stories

What we do now – think adding value…

  • Avoid news stories and link to useful stuff – analysis, explainers, Q&As, pic galleries etc
  • On external websites look beyond homepage to pages of specific relevance
  • Inline linking in news stories is OK when it’s to a primary source

Other points of note in the document include the repeated emphasis on useful deep linking, and the importance of the newstracker module (which links to coverage on other news sites). Curiously, when referring to inline links it does say that “different rules can apply” to BBC blogs – “speak to blogs team if in doubt”.

Something I did look for – and find – was a reference to linking to scientific journals. And here it is: “In news stories inline links must go to primary sources only– eg scientific journal article or policy report (1 or 2 per story; avoid intro)”

This is significant given the previous campaigning on this issue.

On the whole it’s a good set of guidance – I’ll refrain from publishing it in hope that the BBC will…

October 04 2010

14:00

John Walcott makes the switch to online, but wants to bring some traditional-media virtues with him

The whole newspapers vs. aggregators war of attrition doesn’t make much sense to John Walcott. As he sees it, newspapers have always been aggregators. So what’s the big deal?

“The New York Times motto, ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’ minus a few words — ‘all the news we see fit to print’ — is aggregation,” Walcott told me.

That kind of thinking may explain why McClatchy’s D.C. bureau chief is saying goodbye to newspapers and hello to SmartBrief, which compiles daily news summaries across a variety of industries, usually in partnership with a major industry association. In his new role as SmartBrief’s chief content officer and editor-in-chief, Walcott brings 38 years of experience at newspapers to a company that produces an online-only product. (We should note it’s also a company that has had Walcott on it’s advisory board for several years.)

Walcott says he sees little difference between the worlds of the daily newspaper and SmartBrief. The goal with both, is providing readers with “information that is timely and trustworthy to make their decisions.” What makes SmartBrief different is the way they approach that audience, through aggregation, curation, summaries, and links. Walcott says that could be a good model to emulate in the media business. “When you present a summary and a link you are offering readers a choice: Do I care enough to read about this?” he said. “That’s a pretty efficient way to gather information.”

Assembling those summaries takes what Walcott calls “intellectual rigor and honesty in deciding what are important stories.” It also demands a measure of trust from your audience, knowing that you’re going to provide reported, qualified information — in other words, a relationship not unlike the one readers have traditionally had with traditional media.

Walcott knows all about traditional media, having led Knight Ridder’s D.C. bureau before McClatchy’s purchase of the chain and previously having worked at Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal. He won the first I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence in 2008 (a prize administered here at Nieman) for McClatchy’s series investigating the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq.

Of course, SmartBrief’s collection of specifically targeted audiences isn’t the same as a D.C. bureau’s broad, general one. The company curates summaries of the day’s news in industries like accounting, finance, health care, non-profits and technology. The newsletters SmartBrief produces are free to subscribers, thanks to its deals with trade associations, nonprofits, and other industry groups.

As audiences fragment, Walcott thinks media companies would be wise to find ways to tailor what they are doing to specific groups and the ways they consumer information. It’s not just that people want news that’s targeted for them, but it’s also increasingly hard to find that right signal/noise ratio. That makes aggregation all the more powerful, he said. “The job of aggregation as I see it is to drive readers to the source of content,” he said. “If we’re doing our job right, people producing the best content will benefit from that.”

Despite an increasingly flow of traditional media figures into online outlets, Walcott said he struggled with the idea of leaving newspapers. But he says SmartBrief is taking an active role in figuring out a path to success in media. And that’s something he wants to be a part of.

“At the end of the day the thing I’m trying to do is bring the virtues that good journalism posses and marry them with the new ways people are getting and sharing information,” Walcott said.

September 08 2010

14:30

September 03 2010

10:28

June 11 2010

15:51
08:10

June 10 2010

14:00

Linking by the numbers: How news organizations are using links (or not)

In my last post, I reported on the stated linking policies of a number of large news organizations. But nothing speaks like numbers, so I also trawled through the stories on the front pages of a dozen online news outlets, counting links, looking at where they went, and how they were used.

I checked 262 stories in all, and to a certain degree, I found what you’d expect: Online-only publications were typically more likely to make good use of links in their stories. But I also found that use of links often varies wildly within the same publication, and that many organizations link mostly to their own topic pages, which are often of less obvious value.

My survey included several major international news organizations, some online-only outlets, and some more blog-like sites. Given the ongoing discussion about the value of external links, and the evident popularity of topic pages, I sorted links into “internal”, “external”, and “topic page” categories. I included only inline links, excluding “related articles” sections and sidebars.

Twelve hand-picked news outlets hardly make up an unbiased sample of the entire world of online news, nor can data from one day be counted as comprehensive. But call it a data point — or a beginning. For the truly curious, the spreadsheet contains article-level numbers and notes.

Of the dozen online news outlets surveyed, the median number of links per article was 2.6. Here’s the average number of links per article for each outlet:

Source Internal External Topic Page Total BBC News 0 0 0 0 CNN 0.3 0.2 0.7 1.2 Politico 0.7 0.2 0.6 1.5 Reuters.com 0.1 0.2 1.4 1.7 Huffington Post 1.1 1.0 0 2.1 The Guardian 0.5 0.2 1.8 2.4 Seattle Post-Intelligencer 0.9 1.9 0 2.8 Washington Post 1.0 0.3 2.0 3.3 Christian Science Monitor 2.5 1.1 0 3.6 TechCrunch 1.8 3.6 1.2 6.6 The New York Times 1 1.2 4.6 6.8 Nieman Journalism Lab 1.4 13.1 0 14.5

The median number of internal links per article was 0.95, the median number of external links was 0.65, and the median number of topic page links was also 0.65. I had expected that online-only publications would have more links, but that’s not really what we see here. TechCrunch and our own Lab articles rank quite high, but so does The New York Times. Conversely, the BBC, Reuters, CNN, and The Huffington Post are not converting from a print mindset, so I would have expected them to be more web native — but they rank at the bottom.

What’s going on here? In short, we’re seeing lots of automatically generated links to topic pages. Many organizations are using topic pages as their primary linking strategy. The majority of links from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters.com, CNN, and Politico — and for some of these outlets the vast majority — were to branded topic pages.

Topic pages can be a really good idea, providing much needed context and background material for readers. But as Steve Yelvington has noted, topic pages aren’t worth much if they’re not taken seriously. He singles out “misplaced trust in automation” as a pitfall. Like many topic pages, this CNN page is nothing more than a pile of links to related stories.

It doesn’t seem very useful to use such a high percentage of a story’s links directing readers to such pages. I wonder about the value of heavy linking to broad topic pages in general. How much is the New York Times reader really served by having a link to the HBO topic page from every story about the cable industry, or the Washington Post reader served by links on mentions of the “GOP”?

I suspect that links to topic pages are flourishing because such links can be generated by automated tools and because topic pages can be an SEO strategy, not because topic page links add great journalistic value. My suspicion is that most of the topic page links we are seeing here are automatically or semi-automatically inserted. Nothing wrong with automation — but with present technology it’s not as relevant as hand-coded links.

So what do we see when we exclude topic page links?

Excluding links to topic pages — counting only definitely hand-written links — the median number of links per article drops to 1.7. The implication here is that something like 30 percent of the links that one finds in online news articles across the web go to topic pages, which certainly matches my reading experience. Sorting the outlets by internal-plus-external links also shows an interesting shift in the linking leaderboard.

Source Internal External Total BBC News 0 0 0 Reuters.com 0.1 0.2 0.3 CNN 0.3 0.2 0.5 The Guardian 0.5 0.2 0.7 Politico 0.7 0.2 0.9 Washington Post 1.0 0.3 1.3 Huffington Post 1.1 1.0 2.1 The New York Times 1 1.2 2.2 Seattle Post-Intelligencer 0.9 1.9 2.8 Christian Science Monitor 2.5 1.1 3.6 TechCrunch 1.8 3.6 5.4 Nieman Journalism Lab 1.4 13.1 14.5

The Times and the Post have moved down, and online-only outlets Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Christian Science Monitor have moved up. TechCrunch still ranks high with a lot of linking any way you slice it, and the Lab is still the linkiest because we’re weird like that. (To prevent cheating, I didn’t tell anyone at the Lab, or elsewhere, that I was doing this survey.) But the BBC, CNN, and Reuters are still at the bottom.

Linking is unevenly executed, even within the same publication. The number of links per article depended on who was writing it, the topic, the section of the publication, and probably also the phase of the moon. Even obviously linkable material, such as an obscure politician’s name or a reference to comments on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page, was inconsistently linked. Meanwhile, one anomalous Reuters story linked to the iPad topic page on every single reference to “iPad” — 16 times in one story. (I’m going to have to side with the Wikipedia linking style guide here, which says link on first reference only.)

Whether or not an article contains good links seems to depend largely on the whim of the reporter at most publications. This suggests a paucity of top-down guidance on linking, which is in line with the rather boilerplate answers I got to my questions about linking policy.

Articles posted to the “blog” section of a publication generally made heavier use of links, especially external links. The average number of external links per page at The New York Times drops from 1.2 to 0.8 if the single blog post in the sample is excluded — it had ten external links! Whatever news outlets mean by the word “blog,” they are evidently producing their “blogs” differently, because the blogs have more links.

The wire services don’t link. Stories on Reuters.com — as distinguished from stories delivered on Reuters professional products — had an average of 1.7 links per article. But only 0.3 of these links were not to topic pages, and only blog posts had any external links at all. Stories read on Reuters professional products sometimes contain links to source financial documents or other Reuters stories, though it’s not clear to me whether these systems use or support ordinary URLs. The Associated Press has no hub news website of its own so I couldn’t include it in my survey, but stories pushed to customers through their standard feed do not include inline links, though they sometimes include links in an an “On the Net” section at the end of the story.

As I wrote previously, Reuters and AP told me that the reason they don’t include inline hyperlinks is that many of their customers publish on paper only and use content management systems that don’t support HTML.

What does this all mean? The link has yet to make it into the mainstream of journalistic routine. Not all stories need links, of course, but my survey showed lots of examples where links would have provided valuable backstory, context, or transparency. Several large organizations are diligent about linking to their own topic pages, probably with the assistance of automation, but are wildly inconsistent about linking to anything else. The cultural divide between “journalists” and “bloggers” is evident by the way that writers use links (or don’t use them), even within the same newsroom. The major wire services don’t yet offer integrated hypertext products for their online customers. And when automatically generated links are excluded, online-only publications tend to take links more seriously.

June 09 2010

16:00

Making connections: How major news organizations talk about links

Links can add a lot of value to stories, but the journalism profession as a whole has been surprisingly slow to take them seriously. That’s my conclusion from several months of talking to organizations and reporters about their linking practices, and from counting the number and type of links from hundreds of stories.

Wikipedia has a 5,000 word linking style guide. That might be excessive, but at least it’s thorough. I wondered what professional newsrooms thought of linking, so I contacted a number of them and asked how they were directing their reporters to use links. I got answers — but sometimes vague answers.

In this post I’ll report those answers, and in the next post I’ll discuss the results of my look into how links are actually being used in the published work of a dozen news outlets.

The BBC made its linking intentions public in a March 19 post by website editor Steve Herrmann.

Related links matter: They are part of the value you add to your story — take them seriously and do them well; always provide the link to the source of your story when you can; if you mention or quote other publications, newspapers, websites — link to them; you can, where appropriate, deep-link; that is, link to the specific, relevant page of a website.

I asked Herrmann for details and reported his responses previously. Then I sent this paragraph to other news organizations and asked about their linking policies. A spokesperson for The New York Times wrote:

Yes, the guidance we offer to our journalists is very similar to that of the BBC, in that we encourage them to provide links, where appropriate, to sources and other relevant information.

Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti made similar remarks, but emphasized that the Post encourages “deep linking.”

While we don’t have a formal policy yet on linking, we are actively encouraging our reporters, especially our bloggers, to link to relevant and reliable online sources outside washingtonpost.com and in doing so, to be contextual, as in to link to specific content [rather] than to a generic site so that our readers get where they need to get quickly.

Why would anyone not link to the exact page of interest? In the news publishing world, the issue of deep linking has a history of controversy, starting with the Shetland Times vs. Shetland News case in 1996.

The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires wouldn’t discuss their linking policy, as a spokesperson wrote to me:

As you can see from the site, we do link to many outside news organizations and sources. But unfortunately, we don’t publicly discuss our policies, so we won’t have anyone to elaborate on this.

From observation, I did confirm that Dow Jones Newswires don’t reliably link to source documents even when publicly available online. I found a simple story about a corporate disclosure, tracked down the disclosure document on the stock exchange web site, then called the Dow Jones reporter and confirmed that this was the source of the story. But it’s unfair to single out Dow Jones, because wire services don’t do linking generally.

The Associated Press does not include inline links in stories, though they sometimes append links in an “On the Net” section at the bottom of stories. A spokesperson explained why there is no inline linking:

In short, a technical constraint. We experimented with inline linking a year or so ago but had difficulties given the huge variety of downstream systems, at AP and subscriber locations, that handle our copy. The AP serves 1,500 member U.S. papers, as well as thousands of commercial Web sites and ones operated by the papers, radio and TV stations, and so on.

Reuters links in various ways from stories viewed within its professional desktop products, including links to source documents and previous Reuters stories, though these links are not always standard URLs. Their newswire product does not include links. A spokesperson asked not to be quoted directly, but explained that, like the Associated Press, many of their customers could not handle inline links — and no copy editor wants to be forced to manually remove embedded HTML. She also said that Reuters sees itself as providing an authoritative news source that can be used without further verification. I get her point, but I don’t see it as a reason to not point to public sources.

The wire services are in a tricky position. Not only are many of their customers unable to handle HTML, but it’s often not possible for the wires to link to their previous stories — either because they aren’t posted online or they’re posted on many subscriber websites. This illuminates an unsolved problem with syndication and linking generally: if every user of syndicated material posts copy independently on their own site, there is no canonical URL that can be used by the content creator to refer to a particular story. (The AP’s been thinking about this.)

These sorts of technical issues are definitely a barrier, and staff from several newsrooms told me that their print-era content management systems don’t handle links well. There’s also no standard format for filing a story with hyperlinks — copy might be drafted in Microsoft Word, but links are unlikely to survive being repeatedly emailed, cut and pasted, and squeeze through any number of different systems.

But technical obstacles don’t much matter if reporters don’t value links enough to write them into their stories. In conversations with staff members from various newsrooms, I’ve frequently heard that cultural issues are a barrier. When paper is seen as the primary product, adding good links feels like extra work for the reporter, rather than an essential part of the storytelling form. Some publishers are also suspicious that links to other sites will “send readers away” — a view that would seem to contradict the suspicion of inbound links from aggregators.

Reading between the lines, it seems that most newsrooms have yet to make a strong commitment to linking. This would explain the mushiness of some of the answers I received, where news organizations “encourage” their reporters or offer “guidance” on linking. If, as I believe, links are an essential part of online journalism, then the profession has a way to go to exploit the digital medium. In my next post, I’ll break down some numbers on how different news organizations are using links today.

June 08 2010

13:30

Why link out? Four journalistic purposes of the noble hyperlink

[To link or not to link? It's about as ancient as questions get in online journalism; Nick Carr's links-as-distraction argument is only the latest incarnation. Yesterday, Jason Fry tried to contextualize the linking debate around credibility, readability, and connectivity. Here, Jonathan Stray tries out his own, more pragmatically focused four-part division. Tomorrow, we'll have the result of Jonathan's analysis of how major news organizations link out and talk about linking out. —Josh]

You don’t need links for great journalism — the profession got along fine for hundreds of years without them. And yet most news outlets have at least a website, which means that links are now (in theory, at least) available to the majority of working journalists. What can links give to online journalism? I see four main answers.

Links are good for storytelling.

Links give journalists a way to tell complex stories concisely.

In print, readers can’t click elsewhere for background. They can’t look up an unfamiliar term or check another source. That means print stories must be self-contained, which leads to conventions such as context paragraphs and mini-definitions (“Goldman Sachs, the embattled American investment bank.”) The entire world of the story has to be packed into one linear narrative.

This verbosity doesn’t translate well to digital, and arguments rage over the viability of “long form” journalism online. Most web writing guides suggest that online writing needs to be shorter, sharper, and snappier than print, while others argue that good long form work still kills in any medium.

Links can sidestep this debate by seamlessly offering context and depth. The journalist can break a complex story into a non-linear narrative, with links to important sub-stories and background. Readers who are already familiar with certain material, or simply not interested, can skip lightly over the story. Readers who want more can dive deeper at any point. That ability can open up new modes of storytelling unavailable in a linear, start-to-finish medium.

Links keep the audience informed.

Professional journalists are paid to know what is going on in their beat. Writing stories isn’t the only way they can pass this knowledge to their audience.

Although discussions of journalism usually center around original reporting, working journalists have always depended heavily on the reporting of others. Some newsrooms feel that verifying stories is part of the value they add, and require reporters to “call and confirm” before they re-report a fact. But lots of newsrooms simply rewrite copy without adding anything.

Rewriting is required for print, where copyright prevents direct use of someone else’s words. Online, no such waste is necessary: A link is a magnificently efficient way for a journalist to pass a good story to the audience. Picking and choosing the best content from other places has become fashionably known as “curation,” but it’s a core part of what journalists have always done.

Some publishers are reluctant to “send readers away” to other work. But readers will always prefer a comprehensive source, and as the quantity of available information explodes, the relative value of filtering it increases.

Links are a currency of collaboration.

When journalists use links to “pay” people for their useful contributions to a story, they encourage and coordinate the production of journalism.

Anyone who’s seen their traffic spike from a mention on a high-profile site knows that links can have immediate monetary impact. But links also have subtler long term value, both tangible (search rankings) and intangible (reputation and status.)  One way or another, a link is generally valuable to the receiver.

A complex, ongoing, non-linear story doesn’t have to be told by a single organization. In line with the theory of comparative advantage, it probably shouldn’t be. Of course journalists can (and should) collaborate formally. But links are an irresistible glue that can coordinate journalistic production across newsrooms and bloggers alike.

This is an economy that is interwoven with the cash economy in complex ways. It may not make business sense to pay another news organization for publishing a crucial sub-story or a useful tip, but a link gives credit where credit is due — and traffic. Along this line, I wonder if the BBC’s policy of not always linking to users who supply content is misguided.

Links enable transparency.

In theory, every statement in news writing needs to be attributed. “According to documents” or “as reported by” may have been as far as print could go, but that’s not good enough when the sources are online.

I can’t see any reason why readers shouldn’t demand, and journalists shouldn’t supply, links to all online resources used in writing a story. Government documents and corporate financial disclosures are increasingly online, but too rarely linked. There are some issues with links to pages behind paywalls and within academic journals, but nothing that seems insurmountable.

Opinion and analysis pieces can also benefit from transparency. It’s unfair — and suspect — to critique someone’s position without linking to it.

Of course, reporters must also rely on sources that don’t have a URL, such as people and paper documents. But even here I would like to see more links, for transparency and context: If the journalist conducted a phone interview, can we listen to the recording? If they went to city hall and saw the records, can they scan them for us? There is already infrastructure for journalists who want to do this. A link is the simplest, most comprehensive, and most transparent method of attribution.

Photo by Wendell used under a Creative Commons license.

June 07 2010

14:00

Maximizing the values of the link: Credibility, readability, connectivity

The humble, ubiquitous link found itself at the center of a firestorm last week, with the spark provided by Nicholas Carr, who wrote about hyperlinks as one element (among many) he thinks contribute to distracted, hurried thinking online. With that in mind, Carr explored the idea of delinkification — removing links from the main body of the text.

The heat that greeted Carr’s proposals struck me (and CJR’s Ryan Chittum) as a disproportionate response. Carr wasn’t suggesting we stop linking, but asking if putting hyperlinks at the end of the text makes that text more readable and makes us less likely to get distracted. But of course the tinder has been around for a while. There’s the furor over iPad news apps without links to the web, which has angered and/or worried some who see the iPad as a new walled garden for content. There’s the continuing discontent with “old media” and their linking habits as newsrooms continue their sometimes technologically and culturally bumpy transition to becoming web-first operations. And then there’s Carr’s provocative thesis, explored in The Atlantic and his new book The Shallows, that the Internet is rewiring our brains to make us better at skimming and multitasking but worse at deep thinking.

I think the recent arguments about the role and presentation of links revolve around three potentially different things: credibility, readability and connectivity. And those arguments get intense when those factors are mistaken for each other or are seen as blurring together. Let’s take them one by one and see if they can be teased apart again.

Credibility

A bedrock requirement of making a fair argument in any medium is that you summarize the opposing viewpoint accurately. The link provides an ideal way to let readers check how you did, and alerts the person you’re arguing with that you’ve written a response. This is the kind of thing the web allows us to do instantly and obviously better than before; given that, providing links has gone from handy addition to requirement when advancing an argument online. As Mathew Ingram put it in a post critical of Carr, “I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice.”

That’s no longer a particularly effective strategy. Witness the recent dustup between NYU media professor Jay Rosen and Gwen Ifill, the host of PBS’s Washington Week. Early last month, Rosen — a longtime critic of clubby political journalism — offered Washington Week as his pick for something the world could do without. Ifill’s response sought to diminish Rosen and his argument by not deigning to mention him by name. This would have been a tacky rhetorical ploy even in print, but online it fails doubly: The reader, already suspicious by Ifill’s anonymizing and belittling a critic, registers the lack of a link and is even less likely to trust her account. (Unfortunately for Ifill, the web self-corrects: Several commenters on her post supplied Rosen’s name, and were sharply critical of her in ways a wiser argument probably wouldn’t have provoked.)

Readability

Linking to demonstrate credibility is good practice, and solidly noncontroversial. Thing is, Carr didn’t oppose the basic idea of links. He called them “wonderful conveniences,” but added that “they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions — we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head.”

Chittum, for his part, noted that “reading on the web takes more self-discipline than it does offline. How many browser tabs do you have open right now? How many are from links embedded in another piece your were reading and how many of them will you end up closing without reading since you don’t have the time to read Everything On the Internets? The analog parallel would be your New Yorker pile, but even that — no matter how backed up — has an endpoint.”

When I read Chittum’s question about tabs, my eyes flicked guiltily from his post to the top of my browser. (The answer was 11.) Like a lot of people, when I encounter a promising link, I right-click it, open it in a new tab, and read the new material later. I’ve also gotten pretty good at assessing links by their URLs, because not all links are created equal: They can be used for balance, further explanation and edification, but also to show off, logroll and name-drop.

I’ve trained myself to read this way, and think it’s only minimally invasive. But as Carr notes, “even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters.” I’m not sure about the matters part, but I’ll concede the point about the extra cognitive load. I read those linked items later because I want to pay attention to the argument being made. If I stopped in the middle for every link, I’d have little chance of following the argument through to its conclusion. Does the fact that I pause in the middle to load up something to read later detract from my ability to follow that argument? I bet it does.

Carr’s experiment was to put the links at the end. (Given that, calling that approach “delinkification” was either unwise or intentionally provocative.) In a comment to Carr’s post, Salon writer Laura Miller (who’s experimented with the endlinks approach), asked a good question: Is opening links in new tabs “really so different from links at the end of the piece? I mean, if you’re reading the main text all the way through, and then moving on to the linked sources through a series of tabs, then it’s not as if you’re retaining the original context of the link.”

Connectivity

Carr was discussing links in terms of readability, but some responses have dealt more with the merits of something else — connectivity. Rosen — who’s described the ethic of the web persuasively as “to connect people and knowledge,” described Carr’s effort as an attempt to “unbuild the web.” And it’s a perceived assault on connectivity that inflames some critics of the iPad. John Batelle recently said the iPad is “a revelation for millions and counting, because, like Steve Case before him, Steve Jobs has managed to render the noise of the world wide web into a pure, easily consumed signal. The problem, of course, is that Case’s AOL, while wildly successful for a while, ultimately failed as a model. Why? Because a better one emerged — one that let consumers of information also be creators of information. And the single most important product of that interaction? The link. It was the link that killed AOL — and gave birth to Google.”

Broadly speaking, this is the same criticism of the iPad offered bracingly by Cory Doctorow: It’s a infantilizing vehicle for consumption, not creation. Which strikes me now as it did then as too simplistic. I create plenty of information, love the iPad, and see no contradiction between the two. I now do things — like read books, watch movies and casually surf the web — with the iPad instead of with my laptop, desktop or smartphone because the iPad provides a better experience for those activities. But that’s not the same as saying the iPad has replaced those devices, or eliminated my ability or desire to create.

When it comes to creating content, no, I don’t use the iPad for anything more complex than a Facebook status update. If I want to create something, I’ll go to my laptop or desktop. But I’m not creating content all the time. (And I don’t find it baffling or tragic that plenty of people don’t want to create it at all.) If I want to consume — to sit back and watch something, or read something — I’ll pick up the iPad. Granted, if I’m using a news app instead of a news website, I won’t find hyperlinks to follow, at least not yet. But that’s a difference between two modes of consumption, not between consumption and creation. And the iPad browser is always an icon away — as I’ve written before, so far the device’s killer app is the browser.

Now that the flames have died down a bit, it might be useful to look at links more calmly. Given the link’s value in establishing credibility, we can dismiss those who advocate true delinkification or choose not to link as an attempt to short-cut arguments. But I think that’s an extreme case. Instead, let’s have a conversation about credibility, readability and connectivity: As long as links are supplied, does presenting them outside of the main text diminish their credibility? Does that presentation increase readability, supporting the ethic of the web by creating better conversations and connections? Is there a slippery slope between enhancing readability and diminishing connectivity? If so, are there trade-offs we should accept, or new presentations that beg to be explored?

Photo by Wendell used under a Creative Commons license.

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