The art of linking

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on JPROF on Feb. 20, 2006. Many of the points it makes are still relevant, but the thinking about linking has now evolved into a concept called link journalism. Readers are encouraged to read Josh Korr, “Nervous About Link Journalism? Ignore Web’s ‘Cesspool’ And Tap Its ‘Natural Spring’, “ Publishing2; and Mindy McAdams, “‘Curation,’ and journalists as curators,” Teaching Online Journalism. (Jan. 4, 2009)

http://publishing2.com/2008/10/13/nervous-about-link-journalism-ignore-webs-cesspool-and-tap-its-natural-spring/

http://mindymcadams.com/tojou/2008/curation-and-journalists-as-curators/


The recent Los Angeles Times story about War News Radio at Swarthmore College had everything a good article for a traditional news outlet would want: interesting topic, good reporting, straightforward writing, good quotations. The story was about an innovative Internet radio station where students report on the war in Iraq by trolling the web for sources – many of them inside Iraq itself – and then call these sources up using a free Internet phone service called Skype. The result is some information and voices you wouldn’t hear on traditional news outlets.

The story itself, as it appeared on the Los Angeles Times web site, lacked only one thing: links.

The story was about something happening on the web (War News Radio), but if readers wanted to see it or hear it for themselves, the story was no help. Neither the reporter nor the editor of the story had bothered to include links so that readers so go straight to the subject.

Linking is the simplest, most basic tool of hypertext.

By using it properly, journalists can offer readers far more than what they can gather and process through their efforts. They can enhance the reader’s experience and can perform a valuable service for the reader by pointing the reader to relevant sources of additional information.

Journalists can do all of this. Unfortunately, far too often, they do not.

Why journalists fail to harness the power of linking in their news reports may come from a variety of reasons and practices. Journalists are often trained to think of their work as autonomous – not connected with other information or sources except as they are included in the narrative the journalist writes. Finding and assessing good links takes time, something a reporting working under deadline pressure may not have. News organizations do not encourage linking in their general practices and, in fact, may actively discourage it. In addition, reporters and editors may not know enough about HTML to use it to build links for their stories. Finally, many journalists simply do not understand the power of linking and what it can do for the reader.

All of these reasons and practices could be easily corrected – and they should be. Linking is too valuable for the reader and too important for the journalist to be ignored. As well as offering a valuable service to the reader, links tap into the interactivity function of the web, allowing the users to have some control over what they see and how they navigate through the information that the journalist is providing.

Putting a link into a story or listing links at the end of a story calls for only the very minimum of knowledge about HTML (hypertext mark-up language). The tag for linking is <a href=> followed by the web address of the information or page you want to link to. This should be placed before the word or words that will appear as the link on the web page. Immediately after those words should be an end tag, in this case </a>. That’s it. That is all the technical expertise that is required.

But while creating links is a relatively simple matter, the art of linking takes a delicate and skillful hand and a resourceful and agile brain. Links should be carefully assessed for what they will mean to a reader and how they will add to the overall package of information the journalist is providing for the reader.

Links do not serve this purpose if they are any of the following:

Opaque or unexplained. It should be obviously to a reasonably intelligent reader what he or she will be getting when a link is clicked. Sometimes this is evident from the content surrounding the link or from the name of the link itself. Too often, however, it is not obvious, and the reader is left to guess.

Too general. A link that simply takes someone to the home page of a web site when the relevant information is somewhere within the web site makes the reader work too hard. The reporter and editor should do the heavy lifting in terms of locating information and pointing the reader specifically to that information.

Irrelevant. Some links may be full of information, but they are not germane to the point of story. In these cases, they should not be included.

Commercial. Links should not take readers to site that are advertisements or that ask them to spend their money unless they are clearly marked. Currently, many book titles that are make into links take the reader to the book’s page on Amazon or some other commercial site. These undescribed links do not give the reader much information but instead waste the reader’s time.

Dead or rotting. One of the judgments a reporter or editor must make about links is how long they are likely to remain live. Many newspaper web sites put their stories behind a firewall after a certain amount of time, and a link to that site will give the reader nothing unless he or she is registered with the site or subscribes to the site. “Link rot,” as it is called, should be a major concern to editors, and they should think about the long-term value of their stories.

Outside the links on the navigation bar, two types of links are most common in news reporting: inline links and link lists.

An inline link takes the words of a story and makes them into a link. The link is recognizable by a different coloring of the type (commonly blue, but not always) and offers the reader of the story a way to get additional information instantly. Inline linking is an efficient way of providing links for the reader, but there are some considerations that reporters and editors much make if they are to be used:

  • Only a few words should be used as a link (three to five at the most); otherwise, the link is distracting.
  • It should be obvious from the context or the words themselves where the link is going and what the reader will find there.
  • Inline links invite the reader to interrupt reading the narrative the reporter has written. Do the reporter and editor really want this to happen?
  • Unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, no paragraph should have more than one or two inline links.

A link list can be placed at any appropriate place on the page – even inside a story as long as it does not confuse the reader. The link list is not as efficient as inline linking, but it has the potential of offering the reader more information about the links. Also, unlike inline linking, it does not require the writer to compose the narrative in such a way as to explain the links. (A good example of a link list is the NPR illustration at the beginning of this article.)

Both inline linking and link lists have their advantages, and news organizations should consider using both, even on the same page.

A few news web sites are beginning to catch on to the power of linking, although it is somewhat surprising how many of them haven’t. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post, two of the best big media sites, do some linking within their stories. The Los Angeles Times does almost none. National Public Radio usually provides a good set of links for its depth stories.

Linking is so basic to the web that it should be a natural and integral part of the reporting and editing process of web journalism.

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