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July 26 2012

16:43

How Buzzfeed wants to reinvent wire stories for social media

The wire story is an atomic element of news: It’s the basic material upon which more journalism can be built. But wire stories, as a compact unit for getting out the basics of an updating story, are also a commodity. Thanks to the speed of information and the glut of channels we can access it on, it’s not uncommon to get flooded with the same story when major news breaks. If you were on Twitter or Facebook the day the Supreme Court issued its decision on the Affordable Care Act, you know the signal-to-noise ratio was high on the noise side.

A torrent of repetitive news updates is a problem for readers, and for editors, like BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, it’s a frustration. Smith was brought on in late 2011 as editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed to develop the company’s journalistic side and has since hired a staff of reporters and built out more news-esque sections for the site. The challenge in all of this is finding a way to graft the sensibilities of a news organization onto BuzzFeed’s fabulous Internet harnessing machine. The principle here is to take whatever it is that makes things like 14 First World Problems From the 90s popular and apply it to stories about Mitt Romney and SEC filings.

One place Smith wants to experiment now: The wire story. When I talked with Smith, he said the idea of the wire story needs to be reworked in the era of social media. This week they took a step towards that goal by hiring a new breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed. Jessica Testa, who previously wrote for BuzzFeed Shift, will be stepping into the breaking news job. Part of her work, as the posting for the job advertised, will be “Creating posts on the stories that are just starting to take off on the social web, with the goal of reinventing the wire story for the social web.”

The old model, where wire stories run 2-8 paragraphs with varying degrees of fresh reporting, doesn’t work when people are exposed to so much information on a continued basis, Smith said. “There’s no audience for ‘Here’s this thing you just heard and I’m going to say again,’” he said.

Journalism has always been about speed and precision, but as the place for that has shifted from stories to blog posts and now social media, Smith said journalists have to be more creative in the ways they deliver vital information. They also have to make better decisions. Living and writing in the current news environment means calculating the costs and benefits of working on a “second-rate aggregated version of what someone wrote 20 minutes ago,” versus pursuing an original story, Smith said.

“I feel in general the 800-1,200 word form of the news article is broken,” he said. “You don’t see people sharing those kind of stories.” Smith’s talking about those daily stories that only seem to provide two paragraphs of new information layered on top of several inches of context. Nothing wrong with context, but explanatory journalism now comes in different forms, not just at the tail end of a story.

The problem lies with the delivery, design, and presentation of stories, he said. Think about the structure of wire stories. Most reporters are taught to put old information, the background stuff, at the bottom of stories, thus leaving room for copy editors to lop things off if necessary. But that assumes two things: The value of longer stories and readers ability to keep reading something once they get past new information.

So instead of pushing out a developing story and leading with headline in a Facebook or Twitter post, Smith wants BuzzFeed to experiment. One example he pointed to was the news North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had been promoted to the highest military rank in the country. Instead of an AP-style news update, BuzzFeed took the vital parts of the story and made it a little more shareable via animated GIFs with “Kim Jong Un Gets A Promotion.”

Smith thinks BuzzFeed is well suited to rework the wire story because it’s a company that is deeply web native. The way BuzzFeed works is by trying to pinpoint what web phenomenon will explode next, whether it’s photos, gifs, or news stories. BuzzFeed staff have to have knowledge of sources, but also of different forms of media, Smith said. That means on any given day news on the site doesn’t have to take a predictable shape. It could be a collection of photos, a dominant photo with links, or a collection of quotes.

“It’s something that does the work of a wire story and informs people about this very important piece of international news in this way that was authentically in the language of the social web,” Smith said.

While Smith wants BuzzFeed to tinker with wire stories and try new ideas, that doesn’t mean the site won’t be producing more traditional looking stories. He told me one reason he wants his reporters to think smarter about wire stories is to free them up for original reporting. But it’s worth noting that when news broke of the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., Testa led BuzzFeed’s coverage with a curated mix of text, images and tweets.

Smith expects there will be a period of trial and error as they see how different ways of delivering wire stories that connect with readers. “We’re trying to find ways to tell (stories) that are more visual and more emotionally direct,” he said.

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

October 18 2010

18:15

Newspapers Must Consider More Free, Citizen Media Content

Newspapers can be saved and they can get back to delivering a consistent return on capital to investors, but this can't be achieved using old methods. At CRG Partners, our experience working with newspaper companies in the U.S. and U.K. has shown us that publishers and their executive management seem to believe that traditional cost-cutting methods of layoffs, smaller and thinner papers and lower salaries represent all of the savings that they can generate out of their operations. That's not the case.

One of the myriad problems facing publishers and editors is that, while their resources have been halved or more and they have drastically cut staff and operations, they still face the need to create valuable, compelling and most importantly, local news and features.

One publisher told our firm, "In order to survive we have to be able to generate non-commodity hyper-local content that is relevant and at a cost that allows us to remain competitive and profitable."

Content costs represent between 35 and 45 percent of the cost of producing a newspaper, so the question becomes: How can we cut costs in content and still deliver quality? In order to approach the question correctly, publishers need better information about how they source content -- which content comes from what sources, how it is used, and how much it costs. Content sourcing is one of the area where newspaper publishers and other content-driven organizations can realize real cost savings and prepare their organizations for the new world of publishing.

Maintaining Quality Amid Economic Realities

In reality, publishers and CEOs have little understanding about what their editors are doing. Publishers don't know the relevance of the cost of staff-produced content, paid content from syndicates, wire services and shared or free contributed content and associated editing costs. If they can get a handle on this, they can do a better job figuring out the cost/quality equation for print, online and beyond.

Without change, the opportunity to reduce costs without impacting quality is probably limited. How to build a better model? When you are working towards more efficient content sourcing, you have to ask the right questions:

  1. Is there an alternative content gathering model or a more efficient model that will help to reduce costs without negatively impacting quality?
  2. Can we improve our content gathering model without any need for change?
  3. How good are we at sharing content?
  4. How much copy is rewritten?
  5. Can we increase pro bono content and is there a strategy in place to facilitate this?

Metro dailies spend large sums on Associated Press and wire content while also maintaining significant local staffing levels. Based on our experience working with these types of publishers, the problem is that the expenditures often don't match the way content is used. Additionally, the way content is used varies wildly by title. A content sourcing analysis can reveal sometimes startling mismatches between editorial expenditure and the way content is used.

Some content is national or international in nature and, in our view, don't need to be staff-produced. Those cases include national and international reports, movie reviews, celebrity news, travel and many lifestyle features. Staff photography can be moved to the first few pages of a section and wire service or contributed photos used further inside. Layers of copyediting can be reduced.

Free or contributed content is a small but growing source of the newspaper offering. Metro dailies have so far rejected the large amount of free content that is available due to concerns about quality, editorial independence and ethics. In this day and age, however, it is wrong to believe that the quality of content you can get from free or archived material or bloggers is unusable.

I'm not advocating that companies move to relying upon citizen journalism as a solution to the metro daily content sourcing puzzle. But certain areas -- high school sports, local government and education, for example -- can rely upon content produced by unpaid contributors who work within specified editorial policies. They can fit into the overall editorial sourcing solution. The best-producing, most popular journalists still have roles in the new model by producing relevant, non-commodity local news that differentiates the metro daily. They are needed now more than ever. New media still stands on the shoulders of old media.

Content Sourcing Data

Over the past year, our firm analyzed four newspaper chains representing 300 titles.
The below graphic illustrates what we found when we looked at how a group of U.K. newspapers were sourcing content (I share some U.S. data below it). Each letter on the left hand side represents a newspaper in the U.K. that has experienced downturns in circulation and revenue. The percentages illustrate how papers within the same chain use content in very different ways:

CRG_media_graphic3-1.jpg

At a different newspaper company, we found that 125 papers published an average of 37 percent staff-written articles and 29 percent wire service material. What we called "reworked content," or content that had to be rewritten or heavily edited, accounted for 14 percent of what was published. Shared content from sister publications was just 8 percent, while free, or contributed content, represented 5 percent of published content.

These papers had already undergone extensive staff reductions. In the conventional sense, all the costs had been wrung out. But newspapers have to change the way they think in order to survive. If you've wrung out all the costs you can from the existing content creation model, then it's time to change the model itself. One paper printed 8 percent of its material from free content. If that number moved up to 20 percent, the savings can be measured and monetized. In the case of this client, a reduction of the use of 16 percent of staff-produced material led to a savings of 28 percent in staffing costs.

Although the program has been implemented for 2010-2011, actual results aren't in yet. At this point, the editorial changes have been accepted and circulation is holding steady. If all goes according to plan, a total of $4.3 million more in savings will be realized. None of that could be accomplished by an editorial system that doesn't understand what it costs to produce a newspaper. It's high time for a content sourcing change in this industry.

As part of New York-based CRG Partners, Neil Heyside (neil.heyside@crgpartners.com) has more than 20 years of experience in process improvement, change management and operational reengineering in the U.K., U.S., Europe and South Africa. CRG Partners received the 2010 Turnaround Management Association's (TMA's) Mega Company Turnaround Award and was named Turnaround Consulting Firm of the Year by M&A Advisor. He can be reached at 212.370.5550.

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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.

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