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October 06 2011

15:28

LIVE: Final session – The future of collaboration in digital journalism

A panel of digital journalism experts discuss the key issues raised in this environment of participatory journalism: adopting a “digital-first” mentality, the values and standards of the link-economy and the role and responsibilities of journalists and news organisation as active members of the open-web community.

With Steve Herrmann, editor, BBC News Online; Anthony De Rosa, social media editor, Reuters (via Skype), Duncan Hooper, managing editor, news and sport, MSN UK and Momoko Price, communications director, BuzzData. Moderated by Torin Douglas, media correspondent, BBC.

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.

May 04 2010

16:00

Why does the BBC want to send its readers away? The value of linking

The BBC aims to double the number outbound clicks from its site by 2013. That’s double the number of people sent away from the BBC site — intentionally. In a recent BBC blog post, BBC News website editor Steve Herrmann cites a BBC strategy review document which lays out the goal of

Turning the site into a window on the web by providing at least one external link on every page and doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites.

One external link per page will seem laughably low to any seasoned blogger, but intentionally increasing outbound traffic is positively radical for a mainstream newsroom. It’s a goal that might baffle proponents of the walled garden approach to web sites, or raise howls of protest among those who feel that aggregators are parasites, but Herrmann wrote that the BBC sees it as a service to its readers:

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.

This comes in the wake of £600 million in cuts to the BBC budget, about 15 percent of the huge organization’s spending. That includes a 25-percent cut to the BBC website’s budget, which will halve the number of top-level sections by 2013. The BBC has also delayed its iPad/iPhone news reading application in the U.K. after industry complaints that it is crowding private newsrooms out of the market. (American users can already use the iPad app.)

Is the BBC’s plan to increase external links an enlightened editorial policy, or is this just spin on a downsizing announcement? Are they aiming to provide a valuable curation service to their readers, have they been forced by regulators to reduce the scope of their work, or is this really a cash-strapped move towards a cheaper, aggregator-style news organization? I asked Herrmann to explain.

He told me by email that

The strategy envisages the BBC as a cultural and public space, one that isn’t trying to sell anything and can be trusted. It sets out the aim of building this broader public space by working with other public cultural organisations to share and promote a wider range of content.

So the principle for BBC Online, which covers news, weather, sport and programme content, is that it should be “a window on the web”, guiding audiences to the best of the internet as well as partnering with external providers — and that is why we want to increase the click-throughs.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that competitive concerns played some role in the decision. “We do need to leave space for others,” he wrote.

The move is also about transparency. In an age where many source documents are available in electronic form online, there’s often little reason that readers shouldn’t have access to the same material that reporters use to write their stories. Yet the practice of showing your sources is still less then common among many news organizations. I asked Herrmann if the BBC had a specific policy on source linking.

This is something else I have raised in the blog. There should be a principle that we do link to the most relevant and useful information, including the source documents, wherever we can. That’s not something new — we’ve always had huge interest from users in the source documents we make available for government budget announcements, for example — but it is a restatement of the principle, and a signal of our intent to try to do this as well as we possibly can. Also, as I have started to discuss in the blog post, there is some devil in the detail — for example sometimes the source document isn’t online at time of writing, or it is behind a paywall, or requires subscription — so we are thinking these things through. I’m interested in trying to formulate and develop the best policy with the help of the detailed feedback we are getting from our users.

There is a lively discussion around the details of an ideal source linking policy in the comments to Herrmann’s post, especially as regards academic journals and other non-free sources. It’s also worth mentioning the DocumentCloud project, a serious attempt to build a journalistic document repository which solves some of these problems, such as keeping documents private before publication.

But does the courtesy of linking extend to your competition? “Do what you do best and link to the rest” has become a new-media maxim, but mainstream news organizations are still loathe to send readers to someone else’s reporting. So does the BBC intend to link more often to stories produced by other news sources?

Yes, news organisations and other sources. That is the focus of my recent blog post. We are in the process of working out what this means for our day-to-day working practices on the newsdesk, how to link more but also better. We’ve had links on stories since we started, and we have long had an automated module that pulls in related stories from other news sites, but how can technology help us to do this even better, and what does the journalist working on a story need to change in the way they approach what they do?

Aggregators flourish because users find them useful. The weekly link roundup and the top-ten list remain perennial blogging forms. And while every statement in news writing is supposed be attributed, in practice Wikipedia articles link to their sources far more reliably than news stories. The BBC may be on to something here.

March 19 2010

21:48

The BBC and linking part 3 – the BBC respond

As promised in a comment on the first post on this topic (part 2 here), the BBC’s Steve Herrmann today responded to the debate surrounding the BBC’s linking policy (or policies).

In it Steve not only invites comments on how their linking policy should develop, but also gives a valuable insight into the guidance distributed within the corporation, which includes the following:

  • 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.
  • Where we have previously copied PDFs (for full versions of official reports and documents, for example) and put them on our own servers, we should now consider in each case whether to simply link to PDFs in their native location – with the proviso that if it’s likely to be a popular story, we may need to let the site know of possible increased demand.

“On linking to science papers in particular,” Steve continues,

“we don’t currently have a specific policy, but the simplest principle would seem to be that we should find and provide the most relevant and useful links at time of writing, wherever they are – whether it’s an abstract of a scientific paper, the paper itself, or a journal.

“There is some devil in the detail as far as this goes, though. First and foremost, we’re often reporting a story before the full paper has been published, so there may not yet be a full document to link to; some journals are subscription-only; some have web addresses which might expire.”

The post ends with a series of specific questions about how the BBC should link, from what types of links are most valuable, to where they should be placed, to what they should do about linking to scientific papers and information behind paywalls.

The comments so far are worth reading too, raising as they do recurring issues around ethics (do you link to a far-right political party?) and, in one case, seeing linking as part of “this internal destruction of the BBC, linking out shouldn’t be featured at all”.

It’s a debate worth having, and Steve and the BBC deserve credit for engaging in it.

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