Back to Basics

BackToBasics: Linking

Editor’s note: As a new school year ramps up, I’m starting a series of posts highlighting some basic online journalism practices that reporters and editors should be adopting. This is the first in the series.

The most fundamental “thing” that makes the web what it is is not video, audio, fancy responsive design, or animated gifs. It’s the hyperlink. The hyperlink is what ties the web together. And yet this most basic element is something that news media have struggled with since the web was invented way back in the 1990s. They still struggle with it today.

So here are some basics of linking adapted from a presentation I gave to student journalists of the Daily Eastern News during staff training this week.

What is a link?

A hyperlink is a highlighted text in a web document that takes the user to another page or document located somewhere on the Internet. Links are frequently (although not always) denoted by blue underlined text, like this (not a link). What makes a link a link is a bit of HTML code behind those words.

Why do you link?

As a journalist on the web, there are several reasons why you should link to other web pages in your online stories. The most basic reason is this: You’re writing for the web, on the web. This is not paper. It’s a different medium.

Other reasons:

  • Continuity – Rarely does an issue or event arise ex nihilo. Chances are great that this issue or event has been covered before, in some detail, in your publication. Your online readers will benefit from easy access to some of the previous coverage of similar topics within your publication.
  • Context – As stories don’t arise from nothing, they also don’t occur in a vacuum. Linking allows a reporter to show what others are saying about the issue without adding meaningless additional verbiage to the story.
  • Credibility – Linking is a more advanced form of citing your sources. As an example, you can say “The university increased the budget by 3 percent” and actually provide readers with a place to find the source for that figure. Any time you are citing a document (a government report, budget, memo, tweet, press release, etc.), linking to a version of the actual document adds to your credibility. Theoretically, linking to these source documents will also help you avoid misquoting, mischaracterizing, or misconstruing these documents.
  • Community – In most communities, the newspaper isn’t the only source of information. When you read about something happening via someone’s Facebook page or blog or Twitter status, it’s the neighborly thing to do to mention where you got that information. There have been far too many instances where “real” journalists have lifted story ideas and stories from bloggers and community members without giving any credit to those sources. This builds bad blood with your audience. Nobody expects you to find out everything yourself. Share the credit when it’s deserved.

What should you link?

  • Past articles from your own web site
  • Government documents ( or any source source documents)
  • Web sites for artists, musicians, etc.
  • Explanatory background about hard to understand or obscure topics (science, economics, arts movements, etc.)
  • Similar articles around the web (other news outlets, blogs that might have broken news)
  • Controversial statements (source documents, like twitter, facebook, etc.)

How do you link?

  • Inline: This is the most familiar to web users. Linking with actual text within the story, so that “These Words” would take you to another page on the web.
  • Parenthetical: Some sites use this format, although it breaks the flow of the sentence a bit more. It is useful especially for non-html documents or files that might take a while to load (think PDFs or mp3s).
  • More info box: This takes links out of the stream of the article and puts them in a box, like an info box on a print story. Again, the problem here is that people on the web are used to ignoring content that isn’t in the flow of the content they’re consuming, so they might never notice your nice box of links.
  • End of article: This is the lazy way of adding links to a story. Copy and paste some URLs at the bottom of the story and add “For more information:” at the top of the list. I mention that it’s lazy, because a writer doesn’t really have to think about *how* the links fit with the rest of the article. But it’s also bad because most people are never going to reach the end of your article.
What you should not do:
I realize there are well-known – even highly respected – journalistic outlets that do this, but it’s bad practice. Don’t EVER link to a company or individual’s name and have that link lead to a collection of articles on your own web site. It’s dishonest linking. As a web user, when I see Google (notice, that’s a link), I expect that if I click on that link, I’m going to be taken to Google’s home page, not your internally computer-generated page of content. That’s the way the web is supposed to work. If you want to link to other articles about a company that your outlet has written, then that’s a good place for a parenthetical. For instance, I’ve written about WordPress numerous times. If I want to link to previous articles, I might write WordPress [link] (previous coverage) [internal link]. It’s not rocket science.


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