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Time to end newspapers' anti-hyperlink policies

Journalists and bloggers have been talking about the future of newspapers this week, amid huge revenue declines from the New York Times and Gannett. The Baltimore Examiner is closing. Despite strong growth in newspaper Web sites, many newspapers still cling to one relic of the dead-tree world: refusing to link to outside sites or point readers toward sources of more information.

Photo by Locator on Flickr.

In a print newspaper, the material in the paper is all the reader has. There's no easy way to go look at a reporter's source materials. As a result, journalistic practice has evolved around providing information in an article, but without pointers elsewhere. Blogs, by contrast, are on the Web, and typically hyperlink to any article the writer used in compiling the story. Unfortunately, while newspaper blogs have adopted this convention, newspaper articles themselves don't, since reporters still primarily write the articles for print.

In fact, some journalists believe that it's inappropriate to point people to outside Web sites. One activist who worked on the 2000 campaign against "Dr." Laura Schlessinger's short-lived TV show told me they changed the name of the campaign from "Stop Dr. Laura" to "" after one journalist told them that they wouldn't publish the URL of the site otherwise. It's like publishing an 800 number, the journalist told him, and they won't do that.

They should. If a journalist interviews someone affiliated with a think tank, it'd help readers to be able to click through to that think tank's site and learn more about their positions and biases. If a newspaper story covers a study, like the MWCOG transit ridership study I linked to this morning, it'd be helpful to have some idea of where to find the study, especially to investigate apparent inconsistencies in the data.

Yesterday, the Washington Post published a story on development proposals for the Hill East area. The article itself mentions numerous proposals with no information about where to find more. To the Post's credit, a small link on the story points to a DC Wire companion piece which does link to the proposals.

It's time for newspapers to take the next step. There's no reason anymore to separate blogs, which have links, and regular articles, which don't. Each reporter should include links in a story, and then simply print it in the paper edition without the links. Relying on a separate blog piece misses a lot of other sources. For example, the Hill East article concludes, "'When you stand there, there's a feeling of a valley and some touch of naturalness,' said Jim Myers, who moderates the neighborhood Internet site. 'It could be very nice and very charming.'" Reading that, many interested people would surely like to check out this neighborhood Internet site. If only the Post were willing to tell us what it is.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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What I hate are the psych-out links, the ones that just link to their search page.

by Reid on Jan 30, 2009 12:10 pm • linkreport

I had to laugh that the WP suggested that you needed to go to its own blog to send comments on the Hill East project. (Way to generate unnecessary page views!) Also, the link at the WP's DC Wire blog for submitting comments -- TO THE CITY -- is broken, and takes you to the Moveable Type log-in for the DC Wire blog itself. Oops.

by John on Jan 30, 2009 12:42 pm • linkreport

amen to that. i tend to follow the science & health reporting, and it would be a huge help if articles would link to the studies they cite, rather than leaving the reader to JFGI in the hopes of finding what they're referring to.

by jenny on Jan 30, 2009 1:11 pm • linkreport

actually, it's conceivable and possibly desirable to have the newspaper indicate where links are even in the dead tree edition. This would drive readers back to the e-copy of the article, where they could do the further investigation, ideally always being led back to source evidence at the root of the evidence chain (which would help drive openness in government). The semi-functional links in the printed newspaper would strengthen the printed article's claim to authenticity. Plenty of other potential good effects for newspapers -- not that I want to be accused of saving newspapers -- the quicker the current form dies, the better.

by Peter on Jan 30, 2009 1:15 pm • linkreport

In corporate culture the ability to drive a company into bankruptcy is a sure bet to win huge bonuses and move on to a better job at another company.

by Joe Mammy on Jan 30, 2009 1:58 pm • linkreport

Some news outlets, AP Online and the Biz Journals, for example, are pretty good at listing "for more info" links at the bottom of articles. That seems like a totally reasonable middle ground.

by BeyondDC on Jan 30, 2009 2:15 pm • linkreport

Don't hold your breath for newspapers to adapt. After all, they've not been understanding for say 15 years by now. Print is probably a close second after the RIAA for being utterly clueless on what advantages internet brings, even when they loose enormous amounts of money.

It all has to do with the arrogance of "real" journalists towards blogs and civic journalism. They feel sooo much better, because they have learned how to behave like a journalist in journalism school. And even though they were there 50 years ago, those standards stand as if they were the 10 commandments.

I've never understood why. After all, their stories get printed on paper that ends up in a land fill, while internet articles stay forever. I'd think that's better for the writer. But then, I am one of those pathetic folks who writes on the internet without a journalism degree.

by Jasper on Jan 30, 2009 3:04 pm • linkreport

On a related note to Jasper's comment, here is a great piece in the Philadelphia Weekly about the failure of Philadelphia's major papers to adapt to changing times:

by Naet on Jan 30, 2009 3:35 pm • linkreport

I just read an NYTImes travel article ( and it was littered with links. They seem to have two types: ones linked over a phrase that stays within the NYT site, and ones linked over a URL, which simply goes to that URL. Very helpful.

In the past few months they also changed the double-click behavior: it used to annoyingly take you to a search within their site; the improved version brings up a hovering question mark which can bring up a pop-up dictionary lookup. That's useful without be intrusive.

by Michael on Jan 30, 2009 3:54 pm • linkreport

Sorry, but this post is not up to usual GGW standards--Many Post writers add links to their stories, often linking to the original source documents and other materials that their stories and columns are based on. I do this on almost every piece I write, and so do many of my colleagues. To be sure, there are plenty of exceptions, but most of us like to add links and there's no policy against it. But unfortunately it's not as easy as you make it sound, because our web site and the newspaper operate on completely different and unlinked computer systems, so writers cannot insert links in their newspaper copy and expect those links to carry over to the web site. Each link has to be hand-added in a separate file for the web site, which may be a disincentive to some writers. Thanks for caring enough about this to take the issue to your readers, David.

by Marc Fisher on Jan 30, 2009 7:09 pm • linkreport

Marc, is there a distinction between blog entries and actual articles?

by William on Jan 31, 2009 9:14 am • linkreport

I worked at the Post Web site until very recently. I never worked with Marc, but he was always a good partner for the Web journalists in Arlington.

The print editing system does actually allow reporters to add Web links to their own stories. That Marc doesn't know that helps illustrate the challenge of keeping a newsroom of 700-or-so trained on a steady stream of technology changes and new tools.

Marc and any other Post reporter who wants to add links to his own copy just needs to check with the News IT folks to learn how.

by Karl Eisenhower on Jan 31, 2009 12:35 pm • linkreport

Sites like Dan's Data exemplify one was you *should* use simple HTML linking as a basic method of communication online, as useful as punctuation or capital letters. Links are underlined, in blue, but basically un-noted in the structure of the writing. They're used without warning as quick, witty references to illustrate the subtext, without slowing one down. Often one can tell what he'll be referring to with a simple mouseover to see the address.

This type of style doesn't work very well in a newspaper column, just as a gesture-heavy public demonstration of a new laptop doesn't work when transcribed or recorded. What was a quick inline illustration (The spokesman points at the screen of the product in the middle of a sentence) becomes a tedious gesture when written down explicitly without conveying significant additional information. It either interrupts the paragraph mid-speech to tell you what's happening, or leaves you clueless as to what's happening until he's finished speaking.

Journalists writing in print will always have to deal with the limitations of print - that means they need to limit their references to a select few links, and either footnote or parenthesize them. They'll never be able to match the deftness that a blogger can slip something in, & they also write to a wider audience that needs more explanation... But a "no links" policy is as dumb when trying to write about certain topics (like particular websites which don't Google easily, or hard to find public records deep behind a bad navigation system) as publishing a bibliography with every column.

BTW, thanks for passing on the tip on getting publicity for a rabble-rousing campaign - something Aravosis excels at.

by Squalish on Jan 31, 2009 4:21 pm • linkreport

I like the articles without links. When I see an article or a blog entry with a ton of links, I get overwhelmed and might just stop reading. I understand your point but there's got to be another way. All I know is, if I click on a WP article with three or four links in the first paragraph, I'll go 'ugh,' and might just click away.

by Jazzy on Feb 1, 2009 8:41 am • linkreport

Marc and Karl: The fact that there are two separate systems, and that many people at the Post don't know how to use them, seems to be the root of the problem.

Jazzy: 3-4 links in one paragraph is too many. A few links here and there to important content is best.

by David Alpert on Feb 2, 2009 8:35 am • linkreport

David: It's a valid point, but the challenge they have is complex. Their systems need to handle editing, workflow, layout, pagination, ad placement and integration with printing presses for three editions on the print side. On the online side they've got dozens of outputs from Web pages to Kindles to a panoply of syndication feeds, plus tools for reader comments, database journalism, online discussions, blogs, multimedia, etc. The systems are outdated the moment you deploy them, and yet there's millions of capital investment tied up in them. Oh, and it's a 24-hour newsroom, so lengthy outages for upgrades and maintenance are off the table.

They've made a bunch of choices there I don't agree with (I am a former employee, after all), but given the giant octopus of CMS needs they have, the publishing tools there could be a lot worse.

by Karl Eisenhower on Feb 2, 2009 9:32 am • linkreport

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