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.
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 “StopDrLaura.com” 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.