Don't forget the value of hyperlinking

Online journalism educators pay much appropriate attention to innovations such as wikis, blogs and crowdsourcing. But let’s not forget the journalism value of might have been the original Web innovation — the hyperlink.

Hyperlinks not only can help provide informative context to information within a story, they also can help keep a story alive long after its original publication.

Consider one example raised in Elizabeth Zwerling’s recent OJR story, Rewriting history: Should editor delete or alter online content?. Zwerling quoted Craig Whitney, standards editor for the New York Times, about reader requests for updates to old crime beat stories.

“A source will call saying the paper reported an arrest, then didn’t report the dismissal of the case,” Whitney said. “We can’t go re-report the who (sometimes 20-year-old) story and we can’t just take their word for it: ‘The judge threw out the case.’ ‘Where’s the judge?’ ‘He’s dead.’ ‘Where’s the record of the case?’ ‘In some archive in Fort Dix.’ We recognize it’s frustrating. We can’t do anything.

Hyperlinking provides journalists two new ways to help readers access the resolution of cases — ways that do not require altering old stories.

Why not assign the court’s case number as metadata to each article written about that case? Many online publishing systems build “related stories” links into each article, giving readers the ability to click to all other stories in publication’s archive with the same metadata tags. (We are doing that now on OJR — see the links at bottom of this article for an example.)

If reporters at your publication routinely assigned case numbers to crime or legal beat stories, then readers could click a link from that page and access all the publication’s other stories on that case. The publishing system, or your internal meta tagging procedure, might need to be modified to make the link reader-friendly. (Who’s going to know what’s behind a link that simply says “CA-192837465,” for example?) But such a system could help users follow the “thread” of a case far more easily.

Today, many jurisdictions post case files online, too. And that provides a way for readers to learn the resolution of cases that reporters might drop, as in the example cited above. Depending upon the jurisdiction, you might be able to “deep link” into your community’s court records for an individual case, using the case number. A savvy Web team might even be able to build that function into its Web story template, so that any story with a case number as metadata would automatically include a deep link into the court’s original documents for that case. (Again, to cite OJR as an example, this would be a similar process to how we deep link to Technorati and Google Blog Search on all OJR stories so that you can see who’s linking to them.)

Even if you can’t deep link into original court records, including the case number, or even just the case’s title, in your story empowers the readers to do that research on his or her own. The San Francisco Chronicle is one major news organization that’s now doing just that. Bob Egelko of the Chronicle wrote to me about his paper’s policy.

“Our policy, which is sort of a work in progress, has been to put case names and numbers at the end of stories on Supreme Court rulings, either state or federal… Lately, at my editor’s request, I’ve also been posting URLs for links to opinions of note, for state Court of Appeal decisions as well as Supreme Court rulings…. The legal papers, such as the Daily Journal and the Recorder, put the case information in the text of their stories, but I think they belong at the end of the text in a general-circulation newspaper, so the readers know where to find them.”

Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, told me that the AP began adding Supreme Court case citations in the mid-1980s, in response to the availability of commercial information databases, such as Lexis-Nexis. “The theory was that perhaps people would look up the case docs,” she wrote, via e-mail.

Today, with the Internet, readers have access to the largest database ever assembled. That access is undermining journalists’ traditional role as gatekeeper to community information. But if we are no longer to be the gatekeeper of the world’s information, we can become great guides to it. Why not serve our readers by showing them the connections from the data we collect to other, related useful information that exists on the Web?

Let’s not forget to hyperlink.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. From my short experience as a reporter, I’ve found that a lot of newspapers really gear their writing to the physical newspaper and posting it to the web is only an afterthought.

    I agree, hyperlinking is an excellent way to add more to the story, and you see it with some good online publications. This was a common topic in many of my j-school classes.

    With many smaller papers I have also noticed that there is not a huge amount of sophistication in their ranks when it comes to creating their online content. The fact that they get it successfully posted is an achievement in itself. This is something that, I think, will change once the old guard has passed and a younger crop of j-school grads has taken over the reins.

  2. We all need to be “great guides” in the online space. One of the biggest questions for online publishers right now is not only what is the right kind of information to put in an article, but how it improves the chance of being found online. This discussion can be viewed in the larger context of SEO (search engine optimization) and online information retrieval.

    As Niles mentions, deep linking is extremely important. Hyperlinking is no longer a one-way street; it establishes reciprocal relationship between publisher and online entities (individuals, networked publics, other publications). Search engines give higher ranking to sites that link to sites outside their own domain.

    Also, as Egelko describes, the more accurate context an article can provide, the better. Even the format of the hyperlink can alter the way your articles are found. A URL of would be more likely to come up in a google search for “Robert Niles hyperlink”.

    The SEO discussion is ever-changing, and most large organizations have dedicated staff to ensure search engine spiders, individuals, and other entities can find articles and that they provide a high relevance to readers. In other words, your articles will be more likely to be found online through careful attention to the format, number, and context of links in your story.