Reinventing the Newsroom

Where Papers’ Linking Problems Begin

Posted in Cultural Change, Hyperlinks by reinventingthenewsroom on May 20, 2011

Why aren’t news organizations better about linking? That question reverberates in digital-journalism circles periodically, and since the link is one of the more fundamental tenets of the web, if not the fundamental tenet, a failure to link is often portrayed as a symptom of an anti-digital culture.

Here, for instance, is Doc Searls on the topic: “Even now, in 2011, [mainstream media are] still trying to shove the Web’s genie back in the old ink bottle. They do it with paywalls, with schemes to drag your eyes past pages and pages of advertising, and (perhaps worst of all) by leaving out hyperlinks. Never mind that the hyperlink is a perfect way to practice one of journalism’s prime responsibilities: citing sources. … Maybe they take too seriously ‘s “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” thesis (#7) in , and want to stay on (or crawl to the) top of whatever heaps they occupy.”

(Normally I would have dropped those links as extraneous, but that doesn’t seem like a good idea for this post.)

There’s some very interesting commentary on Searls’ post, with the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer noting that his paper’s “workflows and CMSs are print-centric” — and others noting other CMS troubles with linking. That kicked off the latest round in this long-running discussion, a Twitter exchange featuring (among others) Mathew Ingram, C.W. Anderson, Jacob Harris and Patrick LaForge, the last two from the New York Times. The Twitter back-and-forth was captured by Ingram (and Politico’s Alex Byers) using Storify — see it here.

Ingram is tired of the workflow argument, contending on Twitter that “the fact this is STILL a workflow issue is almost worse than not caring.” Harris, for his part, tried to defend the Times, asking (at various points) if most readers care about links, and noting that “we aim to inform, but why does it matter when we link if Google is there and offers more choice to the reader?” (To be fair, Harris stated upfront that he was playing devil’s advocate.)

The last piece to consider is this discussion of workflow at Strange Attractor. Kevin Anderson, a veteran of the Guardian, notes the problems the Guardian endured going from Movable Type to a less-friendly content-management system, and a larger issue it faced: “There was an internal conflict over whether to use the web tools or the print tools to create content, and in the end, the print tools won out. The politics of print versus the web played out even in the tools we used to create content. That was an even more jarring move. It was like trying to create a web story with movable type, and I’m not talking about the blogging platform. Most newspaper CMSes are more WordPerfect from the 1980s than WordPress.”

This hearkens back to something Boyer said in commenting on Searls’s post, which Anderson also quoted: “In our newsroom, a reporter writes in Microsoft Word that’s got some fancy hooks to a publishing workflow. It goes to an editor, then copy, etc., and finally to the pagination system for flowing into the paper. Only after that process is complete does a web producer see the content. They’ve got so many things to wrangle that it would be unfair to expect the producer to read and grok each and every story published to the web to add links. When I got here a couple years ago, a fresh-faced web native, I assumed many of the similar ideas proposed above. ‘Why don’t they link?? It’s so *easy* to link!’ I’m not saying this isn’t broken. It is terribly broken, but it’s the way things are. Until newspapers adopt web-first systems, we’re stuck.”

Bingo — except the solution depends on what you mean when you say “systems.”

I spent more than 12 years as a columnist, editor and cat-herder at The Wall Street Journal Online, during which time I was the editorial guy on numerous enhancements to our editing-and-publishing tools, culminating in a project to replace those tools entirely. We opted to replace our systems with editing-and-publishing tools from EidosMedia, where I worked after the Journal and I parted ways — and where I got to see a number of other newsrooms’ workflows. (Disclosure: I’m still an EidosMedia consultant, and they sponsor this blog.)

Having seen this issue from a couple of different perspectives, I think at this point it’s much more a people problem than it is a systems problem. I keep thinking back to a conversation I had with a reporter for the print Journal, when I was still there and we were pondering how to replace our editing-and-publishing tools, and how that would change our workflows and newsroom hierarchy.

We were down in the nitty-gritty, discussing the various content fields we’d ask reporters to enter when they filed stories. The print reporter was adamant that those should be stripped to the minimum — the text of the story, essentially. I was advocating (equally adamantly) that everything at least be available for reporters to enter, from headlines and summaries to links and supporting documents.

I noted that as a columnist for the web arm of the Journal, I wrote my own headlines, summaries and did all my own links — and frankly, I was goddamned if I was going to let somebody else touch that stuff. It was my work, bearing my name, and I would be the one judged on the results — not some copy editor or web producer whose name wasn’t on the story.

The print reporter looked at me like I was from Mars — which, essentially, I was.

That exchange went to the heart of a big question for our team. I advocated that the reporters not only be brought into the system, but also be forced (or at least strongly encouraged) to work within it, with as many of the story responsibilities as possible pushed “upstream” to them. That was the way we worked on the web, and the advantages of it seemed self-evident to me. Headlines and summaries would be more accurate. Interesting links or extra material was much less likely to get discarded as stories crossed from the print to the web side of the house, missed opportunities I was tired of bemoaning. Downstream, web workflows would be smarter and more humane — our night folks had a crushing workload, and were too busy putting out fires and fixing problems to read stories carefully and craft packages of links. And so on.

But this view wasn’t shared everywhere. Attitude-wise, the reporters didn’t fit into one box — some were enthusiastic webheads and agents for change, while others were digital refuseniks. Like the reporter I’d argued with, they wanted the complexity and perceived duties of the web kept as far away as possible. Sometimes this was because they were already extraordinarily busy with the difficult, demanding business of reporting and writing; other times it was because the digital world was intimidating. And they were supported — to my surprise — by some print editors and bureau chiefs, who didn’t want reporters bird-dogging their stories through the workflow. Plus there were union issues, and technology questions with reporters in the field, and a host of other reasons that supported the status quo. That was Word and email, which I objected vociferously would continue to support a text-only workflow that pushed linking and everything else downstream, to people who were too busy or removed from the story creation to do it effectively.

I suspect a lot of newsrooms have had similar debates — and the reasons are more mundane corporate or human stuff than part of some revanchist, anti-web strategy.

If I were running a newsroom and had a decent technology budget, I’d get my reporters and editors a good system, then tell them they were all working in it — and those who objected to that were welcome to explore the excellent opportunities available in corporate communications. Never waste a good crisis, as the saying goes — and that’s certainly what news organizations have. But the point is that improving systems isn’t enough. The biggest problem in most newsrooms I’ve seen is that Person X doesn’t talk to Person Y — because he can’t physically, or never has, or doesn’t want to, or has been discouraged from doing so. The killer app for those newsrooms isn’t something they can get from a vendor — it’s a better seating chart.

So it is with linking woes — in many cases, I suspect, these are people problems.


7 Responses

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  1. Anna Tarkov said, on May 20, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Excellently put! YES, the problem of people not communicating with one another in a newsroom (or almost any office really) is a problem that’s often overlooked. I once heard two people, both of whom worked in the public radio space discussing their offices and where people who did similar jobs were situated. One of them mentioned how a person whose job required them to work across many levels of the organization actually went and visited every floor daily and talked face to face with people. This was crucial to her doing her job well and it was mentioned that her predecessor had not taken the time to do that and how it negatively affected her work. And of course we all know that even being on the same floor with people you need to talk to might not be enough sometimes.

    Also, your point about print people taking on more responsibility is I’m sure something ever web editorial staffer will nod along to furiously. As I’m sure you know, it can be extremely difficult to achieve cooperation there. Like others have been saying, the problem is cultural. Many people just don’t see “digital tasks” as part of their job and they never will unless strong-willed editors and other managers make it clear to everyone that certain things have to be everyone’s job, not just the “web people.”

    I’ve seen that even very pro-digital bosses will just not take that step of saying “You have to do it this way or there’s the door.” Why, WHY is there this coddling of staff who refuse to change with the times when people are clamoring by the hundreds for any new job opening in this industry? It boggles the mind.

    Until this changes, we’re in a tough spot:

  2. Megan said, on May 20, 2011 at 9:43 am

    Good post! I will never forget (circa 2002) calling up a certain auto reporter to ask some questions about links — he had put his cell number as a note in the text he sent us — and he b*tched me out for calling him. Thanks, dude, just trying to enhance your article online, and don’t include your number if you don’t want a phone call.

  3. Aaron Bradley said, on May 20, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Your point that a paucity of linking on newspapers’ web sites may be more related to people than systems is largely validated by the existence of the problem. That is, if people working in newsrooms really cared about linking then systems would be modified to meet this requirement.

    Of course this is also related to the people running newsrooms and newspapers, and if they cared about linking then we’d certainly see more (and more useful) links appearing in news published online. There’s a lack of will and leadership in regard to linking that seems to pervade the newspaper industry.

    Whether an individual news story links out or not may seem to be a relatively trivial matter, but is reflective of the difficulties newspapers have had in trying to define their place in a digital world. The “debate” over whether links are useful, and to what degree they should be used, could probably only happen in the world of contemporary print journalism: other creators of media that ends up on the web figured this out around 1995.

    Does this reflect an generalized anti-digital bias in the newspaper newsroom? I think so. As you point out there’s a broad mix of web enthusiasts and detractors in newsrooms, but I don’t think that the corporate stuff is “mundane.” Even if there’s not an anti-digital bias at the corporate level, there is – again – a lack of leadership in charting a course for digital convergence at print publications.

    Interestingly, in trying to determine what role the worklow played in my own linking study, only one of four newspapers have responded to my email inquiries. If I had made a phone call – or, better yet, sent a letter – to these papers I’d probably have answers by now.

  4. Anna Tarkov said, on May 20, 2011 at 10:09 am

    @Aaron: So true! Can you imagine if some aspect of a print CMS was malfunctioning? Everyone would be up in arms to fix it immediately. But as linking is still not an intuitive process for many folks and apparently its value is even still being debated, there is no rush to make a change.

  5. Scott said, on May 20, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    I could care less about linking. I rarely if ever utilize these, and don’t feel this is the deal-breaker that it’s painted to be. And I’m in the demo that everybody thinks cares about this.

  6. […] to last week’s linking discussion: Former Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Fry wrote about solving the workflow issue at newspapers, and at the Guardian, Dan Gillmor called out lazy linking — linking to a summary, rather than the […]

  7. […] to last week’s linking discussion: Former Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Fry wrote about solving the workflow issue at newspapers, and at the Guardian, Dan Gillmor called out lazy linking — linking to a summary, rather than the […]

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