26 September 2008

SPOTLIGHT – LINKING

“The vision I have for the Web is about anything being potentially connected with anything.”

These are the words of the man credited with the invention of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and in them he encapsulates the central idea behind the Web - connectivity.

And it is through the act of linking that the millions of disparate institutions, groups and peoples that populate the Web can connect to one another.

Therefore, linking is a founding principle of the Web and a principle of its founder – and yet one blogger recently termed it the “Achilles’ heel” of mainstream media.

While a group of editors at a conference earlier in the year was reportedly “appalled” by suggestions that their online news articles need to link out more.

Are they missing a trick and failing to engage with the ethics of the Web? Or are they making a judgment call based on sound commercial ideas?

This SPOTLIGHT post will look at some of these issues while also highlighting some of the ways news sites are starting to get to grips with linking.

It will also take in the basics - what is linking, what are the different forms it can take and how can it be used by digital journalists.

Finally, we’ll round off with the usual suggestions for further reading.

DEFINITIONS

Hyperlink

“An element in an electronic document that links to another place in the same document or to an entirely different document.”

This definition from Webopedia shows the two main types of hyperlink (hereafter shortened to link) – an internal link to a different section on your own site or an external link to a new website.

Hyperlinks are usually a different colour from the main text to make them stand out and are often underlined, as in the above sentence where clicking on Webopedia would take you to its page entry on Hyperlink.

Inline Link

Rather than users being diverted to a new website (as with the above link), inline links open up within the document and usually open as a box with a select amount of content from a different site.

These are currently being used by both the Washington Post and by the BBC – more of that later.

Deep Linking

This takes users to a direct page on a different website as opposed to just the main page or homepage.

For example, a definition of deep linking can be found on Wikipedia – this deep link takes you straight to the entry on it rather than just the Wikipedia homepage.

More definitions of different types of links can be found on Netlitigation.com.

NEWS SITES & LINKING

Now that we’ve examined the most common sort of links relevant to digital news media, let’s look at how some commentators believe linking can enhance online journalism.

In this section we’ll also be looking at the ways that some mainstream news websites are experimenting with external links.

1 – The Web & The Ethic of the Link

To kick us off, here is academic and blogger Jay Rosen talking about “the ethic of the link”.



For Rosen, the “ethic of the web” is all about connecting people to each other and to knowledge - and this means online newspapers which do not link out are essentially “anti-web”.

Therefore, one argument for mainstream media to incorporate external links in their content is that they can never be fully integrated into the World Wide Web until they do so.

Former BBC journalist and new media blogger Alfred Hermida asserts that traditional media could also risk alienating users by not engaging with the connection capabilities of the Web.

“Editors should be thinking of their products as a service that is part of a larger network of news,” he notes.

Hermida adds: “Legacy media risks becoming irrelevant by insisting they are destinations and refusing to open up to the network.”

2 – An Information Gateway

In 2007, Jeff Jarvis wrote on his Buzz Machine blog: “Try this on as a new rule for newspapers: Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.”

Under Jarvis’s rule, this means local online newspapers link to content that other media provide rather than producing their own version of it.

Jarvis says this approach would enable regional news editors to “reallocate your dwindling resources to what matters, which in most cases should be local coverage”.

Local news websites then become an information gateway for the community, pointing users in the right direction.

3 – A Community Hub

An example of how this might work in practice was supplied earlier this year by blogger and local link journalism advocate Scott Karp.

When snow fell in Tennessee last March, KnoxNews.com produced its own news story on the biggest snowstorm for five years.

The site then also linked to the myriad of pictures and posts popping up across personal blogs showing how local residents had been enjoying the rare snowfall.

Writing on his Publishing 2.0 blog, Karp asserts: “Newspapers should aspire to be a hub for shared community experiences - and that’s what the link journalism piece on Knoxnews.com did, by presenting as a shared experience what would otherwise be disconnected blog posts.”

This approach could also be used for a non-geographical community, as shown by a new project from the Washington Post.

Launched this week, the Post’s Political Browser supplies links to all that day’s top political stories, including those on rival newspaper sites.



A press release from the Post states: “The Political Browser creates a hub for readers to instantly find the top news driving the day's political discussion selected by the Post's political team.”

And executive editor Jim Brady adds: “This section is a source for readers to find the best of the Web’s political stories all in one place.”

4 – Hypermedia News

Unlike the linear narrative of a print news story, a Web article can be read in different ways by different people thanks to the presence of links.

Therefore, readers can be given the option on whether they want to know more background information or follow links for further reading – just as in this blog post.

Or to paraphrase New York University’s Brooke Kroeger, according to PJNet, “a little story that any 6th grader can read can also be linked to an extremely sophisticated information base for a more sophisticated reader”.

Plus, linking can see a simple text article be supplemented with all kinds of multimedia to add an extra dimension for readers who want more than words.

It is this aspect of linking that the BBC has recently been experimenting with through its use of inline linking to its own pages and to sites such as Wikipedia, YouTube and Flickr.

Last month, the corporation began using links within selected standard news articles to see if this enhanced the experience for some users without distracting others.




Readers can elect whether to have links enabled or not and clicking on one brings up a small box containing background information or a video or photographic content.

The user can then close the box and continue reading the BBC article or open a new browser window on this page.

Also making use of inline linking is the Washington Post, which introduced pop-ups to two of its blogs in April this year.

The Editors Weblog reports that the strategy (using Apture technology like the BBC project) was to give users extra information without sending them off-site.

5 – Transparency Of Sources

Jarvis terms this “supporting journalism at its source” - linking to original source material - and it’s a practice he says is prevalent in the blogosphere but not in the world of mainstream media.

Linking to sources shows the reader where the journalist has got his/her information from and credits the original author.

And according to blogger Tammi Marcoullier, encouraging reporters to link to source material should reduce incentives for journalists to plagarise others and will reward original content.

6 – Synthesis Of Stories

Simple linking will point out external sites which may be of interest to the reader if they want to know about x, y, z – the information gateway.

However, Scott Karp suggests that “link journalism” takes this whole concept much further by digesting and evaluating that information before presenting it to the audience.

For example, Karp writes about a post on the New York Times’s The Lede: Notes on the News blog concerning how newspapers were reporting oil price forecasts.

Karp notes “The value for the reader here is enormous - not only do they get Times blogger Mike Nizza’s framing and perspective, they get links to all of this original reporting and analysis on this issue.”

He adds: “The Lede has helped readers make sense of what they read elsewhere, helping to make the Lede more essential than those other sources.”

7 – Reciprocal Linking

This summer the SEO Company carried out an experiment to see whether mainstream news websites that included outbound links were likely to receive more inbound links.



Its conclusion? “In general there is a strong relationship between news websites linking out and getting links in return.”

This might just be in the interest of news websites when you remember how much value is placed upon incoming links by search engine software.

And it brings us back to the fundamental nature of the Web itself – a network of connections - and to its founder's vision of anything being connected with anything.

Linking & The Law

The fundamental right for websites to link to other websites has not yet been challenged in court (netlitigation.com), but there have been a number of cases challenging certain aspects or uses of linking.

Some of these saw victory for those linking (German courts legalised deep linking in 2003) and some saw defeat (French website fined for linking to site which committed breach of privacy).

At present, there are no formal rules and regulations governing links but here are a couple of websites which hold information on past court cases.

Netlitigation.com outlines some of the early legal challenges and this document from the World Wide Web Consortium offers an interesting defence of deep linking.

While Links & Law is a useful resource with details on various lawsuits concerning issues such as inline linking and deep linking.


Resources

The Web houses some good practical guides on linking for journalists, including this article from the Online Journalism Review about when and why to link in an article.

Another good authority is Jakob Nielsen, who has written extensively about usability on the Web.

This article may be four years old but it still has valuable advice on formatting links, while this page offers an interesting argument for deep linking over generic linking.

Of particular interest to journalists is a post put together by new media blogger Sarah Hartley with practical tips on linking.

And anyone who wants to know more about the ethical side of linking should take a look at this article on Poynter Online which has a set of online journalism ethical guidelines created by digital reporters.

Finally, more in-depth offerings and analysis of linking can be found in The Hyperlinked Society.

The chapters are available online and Lokman Tsui’s section on Newspapers and Blogs is well worth a look for its discussion on the dual function of links for citation and reciprocity.


And that wraps up this latest SPOTLIGHT post. Next time we’ll be taking a look at the related world of social bookmarking.

In the meantime, do get in touch if you have any interesting examples of online newspapers using links or if there are any topics or themes you’d like to see covered in this series.

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