News Leadership 3.0

August 23, 2011

Link to coverage elsewhere: It’s a strength, not a weakness

The old newsroom adage, “Why promote your competition?” is due for a serious update.

Newsrooms that came of age before the dawn of digital media often act as though the rest of the media ecosystem doesn’t exist. When they pick up on a story that was broken elsewhere, or covered in a richer or complementary way by another venue, they usually won’t mention—let alone link to—those other stories.

But in an age where access to information is ubiquitous and instantaneous, not offering links to related coverage might harm your news brand’s reputation and even deter potential new revenue sources…

By Amy Gahran

I’m tackling this sensitive topic because of something I recently experienced.

Over this summer, as a senior editor with the hyperlocal digital news startup Oakland Local, I’ve been advising reporter C.B. Smith-Dahl on her first-ever environmental journalism project. Toxic Tour 2, Right Beneath Our Feet explores the complex issues with remediating contaminated properties (“brownfields”) in a low-income section of Oakland, Calif.—including how this affects redevelopment and local economic prospects.

The first story in her series, published June 24, covered how the U.S. EPA is attempting to clean up lead pollution in Oakland’s South Prescott neighborhood with a new technology that might sound like dumping garbage: mixing ground-up fishbones into the dirt.

For Smith-Dahl this was a neighborhood story. She lives near the pilot project, and she personally interviewed many key players—as well as attended an open house to explain the project to local residents. Still, her story did mention and embed video from earlier related local TV coverage.

Meanwhile, New York Times environment reporter Felicity Barringer encountered the South Prescott cleanup project via a very different route. In April she lunched with the regional EPA director, who mentioned the project. Barringer later followed up on that pitch independently.

When Barringer’s July 20 story, To Nullify Lead, Add a Bunch of Fish Bones,  hit the front page of the New York Times’ site, I was initially both gratified and dismayed. The choice and placement of this topic seemed to validate our news judgement. But the Times’ story did not mention Oakland Local’s reporting.

Both stories focused on the same tiny cleanup project. At that time a basic Google search for Oakland brownfield would turn up the Oakland Local coverage right at the top (even when correcting for personalization of Google results). So naturally I wondered whether Barringer had seen our reporting—perhaps even drawn inspiration from it.

I later corresponded and spoke with Barringer, and was satisfied that she arrived at her story completely independently and her particular research path would not have inevitably led her to Oakland Local. I was also impressed with her personal sensitivity to the general issue of how major news organizations sometimes redo stories broken by smaller venues, without attribution or links.

“I know how hard it is to keep a website/blog going, and how easy it is for other media to pick up stories without giving credit. We had it happen a couple of times when I was editing the [Times’] local Bay Area pages,” Barringer wrote.

This exchange yielded a stronger and better connection between our venues—temporarily marred by an unfortunate misstep of ours. After my discussion with Barringer, Oakland Local accidentally published (and immediately withdrew) a draft post by another staffer which contended that the Times had deliberately failed to mention us. We explained and apologized to Barringer about this, and now it’s water under the bridge.

In the meantime, two local newspapers also picked up on the South Prescott cleanup story:

  • On Aug. 3 the alternative weekly the East Bay Express ran a lengthy feature story by Nate Seltenrich, How safe is your soil, about the risks of urban farming on brownfields. This mentioned the South Prescott cleanup, but did not mention either the coverage by Oakland Local or the New York Times.
  • On Aug 7, reporter Suzanne Bohan’s story West Oakland’s innovative approach to soil decontamination, which focused entirely on the South Prescott cleanup, ran in the Oakland Tribune—with no mention of any of the prior complementary stories.

I also asked these reporters whether they’d seen Oakland Local’s coverage of the cleanup—and if so, why they didn’t mention or link to us. It seems that especially for local reporting, basic journalistic practice would require a reporter to do a basic Google search to check to assess existing information or coverage about the subject, regardless of the source of the story idea.

The responses here were less encouraging and more defensive than Barringer’s.

Bohan wrote: “I wasn’t even aware of the existence of the Oakland Local news site until this issue you’re raising arose, and never encountered the site’s articles while researching it.”

Seltenrich responded: “I did come across the story and think your reporter did a good job, but don’t see why I would be compelled to cite it in my story unless I lifted something from the story or referenced a fact that I wasn’t able to corroborate elsewhere. If this were a short blog post, we might be compelled to include links to other stories on the matter (including the NYT piece), but this was an original print feature. ...My story would’ve been the same whether your story existed or not. And either way, you had the scoop, and that’s a feather in your cap.”

Were these papers in any way “obligated” to mention the coverage by Oakland Local, or the New York Times, or each other? No. Did they “borrow” from us, or from each other? Yes and no. But might they—and their audiences—all have benefited from cross-linking on related stories? In the big picture, probably yes.

What research shows about the value of cross-linked news

Earlier this year the Chicago Community Trust, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation funded research into network effects in a local media ecosystem. The resulting report, Linking Audiences to News: A Network Analysis of Chicago Websites, was authored by by Rich Gordon of the Medill School of Journalism and Zach Johnson of Syndio Social.

This research used quantitative network analysis techniques to analyze cross-links between 439 local news sites—from the Chicago Tribune to tiny local blogs— serving the Chicago region.

Using the principles of social capital outlined in Robert Putnam’s classic book Bowling Alone as a guide to determine the overall health and value of a local news ecosystem, this report found that communities are better served when news sites of all sizes link to each other more.

Furthermore, this report noted that such analysis “may also be useful in efforts to build financial support for the ‘new news ecosystem’—by yielding insights into which sites are most closely connected and, therefore, might appeal to ...advertisers or donors.”

The researchers found that 79% of the Chicago sites (especially the small niche or hyperlocal ones) received no links from other sites in the network. Meanwhile, 44% percent of the sites did not link to any other local sites.

The report noted: “Websites operated by traditional media tend not to link out to other sites. The sites most likely to link out are organizations and institutions, as well as online-only publications such as Gapers Block.”

In her KDMC review of the Chicago analysis, Michele McLellan observed:

“In the study… Gapers Block stands out with high rankings both as an ‘authority’ site—which means it is often linked to by others in the broad network. Interestingly, the Chicago Tribune is the only legacy outlet in that top 10…

“Gapers Block is also a top ‘hub’—which the report defines as a site that sends traffic to other local sites with heavy use of links—while Tribune doesn’t figure in the top 10 of that list at all. Most of these top 10 sites are either institutional sites or startups.

“The finding underscores the cultural unwillingness of many legacy news organizations to fully embrace the web and the value to their users of linking from their stories to related news and information. The report indicates that at the time of the study, only the traditional organizations have the reach necessary to foster healthier information flows, but only the smaller startups and institutional sites have the willingness to send their users wherever their information needs can be best served.

“I think this will require a fundamental re-framing of the price of admission for foundation or other support of news providers in the emerging ecosystem—one that unfortunately may require leaving more (but not all, I hope) traditional news organizations even farther behind on the highway to the future.”

The Chicago report concluded with four suggestions for how foundations and other potential funders of news venues might help foster the kind of cross-linking that can strengthen communities:

  • Encourage more linking through incentives. “The more financial incentives are based on the volume of outbound links, the more publishers will want to link outward.”
  • Promote link-sharing partnerships between traditional media and “new news” sites.
  • Support sites that are both Hubs and Authorities.
  • Find ways to aggregate and distribute headlines across sites in the ecosystem, such as via widgets.

The big picture, and the bottom line, for local news

Regardless of whether foundations or other philanthropic funding sources heed the findings of the Chicago research report, it’s likely that advertisers and marketers will pay close attention.

Those players—who still provide most of the revenue for mainstream U.S. news organizations—are very into quantitative network analysis. So it’s likely that over time news sites that embrace outbound links might become much more attractive to advertisers.

Also, search engines—a key source of traffic for most news sites, large and small—reward sites that offer outbound links, as long as those links take visitors to directly relevant content.

Reflexively or defensively avoiding outbound links to related stories, perhaps to imply that yours is the only coverage worth reading, is shortsighted and misguided—both for journalism, and for the news business.

Individual instances of missed linking opportunities, such as the ones I detailed above, may be minor. But the cumulative harm of this practice to news orgs and communities could be substantial.

Besides: Interested readers can easily find and link to related stories. Do you really want it to look like your news venue couldn’t be bothered to do likewise?

UPDATE AUG. 31: I wrote a follow-up to this post, Why the scoop mentality is bad for news

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Comments

Amy, I’ve been looking for a news organization or blog that has a well-written policy on linking and crediting other news sources. And I’m wondering how the average newsroom would react to a black-and-white policy that required reporters and editors to credit and link to the original source when they’ve been beaten on a story and then follow up and do their own piece (even if they use original reporting and confirm independently).


Excellent topic, Matt. I’ll be covering the downside of the"scoop mentality” soon in another NL30 post, so stay tuned.


Thank you for this article. I loved how you shared the entire process, respect how you approached and discussed and learned from the process. Thank you for sharing with us. CB Dahl is a great reporter and producer, nice to see, as you said, she was on the pulse of a valuable story.

It would have been nice, having seen her story, if the other media then took up a different aspect of the reporting. Credit her, and then, create a wholly unique look or angle and build beyond the same facts and info - even if you can get the facts too.

Clearly, it was good to see that there was not malicious intent, just a good learning opportunity thanks to the funded study. 

I’ve had the chance to think more about the topic thanks to your article. As a blogger, I always credit and link to the sources. I assumed the legacy media did too.


@Matt - BBC News has some guidelines for linking to other sites.

These links might help:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2010/03/bbc_news_linking_policy.html
http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/page/guidance-blogs-bbc-full#linking-strategy


Matthias, thank you! Super helpful.


I’d like to call attention to two more egregious cases of this problem:

1. In the Chicago Tribune Deborah Shelton and Jason Grotto wrote about a complex medical device issue involving the FDA, Northwestern University Hospital, and Edwards Lifesciences (http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/ct-met-medical-devices-patients-20110522,0,3161920.story) but they failed to acknowledge previous work.

A year and a half earlier in the Wall Street Journal Alicia Mundy and Jared Favole wrote about the exact same topic (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126151643854401921.html).

But the real irony here is that BOTH the Tribune and the WSJ failed to acknowledge that the story had been originally broken and extensively covered on TheHeart.Org. (Please note that I was the editor of THO when the coverage began.)

On the Knight Science Journalism tracker blog Paul Raeburn wrote about the WSJís failure to acknowledge previous coverage on THO (http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/2009/12/31/wsj-nice-story-but-not-as-original-as-it-seems/)

2. In the NY Times Barry Meier and Duff Wilson wrote about a major conflict of interest case involving Medtronic (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/29/business/29spine.html?_r=2&ref=business&src=me&pagewanted=all). However, they failed to acknowledge the extensive previous work on this topic by John Fauber in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. It is fair to say that there never would have been a story without Fauber’s investigation. Again, Paul Raeburn wrote about this episode on the KNihgt Science Journalism tracker (http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/2011/07/03/nyt-months-late-on-medtronic-conflict-of-interest-story/)

I suspect that there are many many more cases out there like this. Journalists should learn to be a bit more generous to their colleagues.


Matt, on the issue of news orgs “beating” each other to stories, in a followup post I explain why that’s mostly a false and detrimental competition. See: http://www.knightdigitalmediacenter.org/leadership_blog/comments/20110831_why_the_scoop_mentality_is_bad_for_news/

Thanks

- Amy Gahran


Good topic. The research about networked newsrooms is very interesting and a very good reason to drop the stigma associated with linking to othersí content. I wonder how best to make it an *interesting* part of the story, though. If I mention another reporterís reporting because he uncovered an important facet of the story, itís an important part of my narrative. And if I think his work adds more depth to the topic that my audience would appreciate, I should link to his work in or next to my story on the web.

But if I just mention his work so that he knows I read it and so he knows Iím aware he got there first, thatís not of much use to my audience. Especially in broadcast writing where time is scarce and movement is critical, mentioning someone elseís work for the sake of their organizationís ego sounds like wasted words.(Again, Iím assuming his reporting was NOT key to my story and my work was done independent of his.)

So I guess my question is *where* you suggest the mention of the other news org should go. On the air? In the page-one print article? Or just on the website, where cross-reference is more useful to the audience anyway.


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