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News Sites Loosen Linking Policies

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News sites that once staunchly refused to link offsite -- especially to competitor sites -- are now testing the waters with offsite links in blogs and e-mail newsletters.

There was a time in the not too distant past when news sites had a very proprietary view of their content. The focus was on collecting eyeballs, and any link that sent readers offsite was frowned upon. A link that went to a competitor's site was almost treasonous.

Times have changed. Slowly, linking policies at news Web sites are loosening up. We're entering an era with an almost "open source" linking policy at some major news sites, which are getting offsite-link religion.

Many are now allowing bloggers and e-mail newsletters to link offsite -- and sometimes even to competitor sites. Using e-mail news digests and Weblogs, news sites are looking to widen their worldview to match the mix-and-match tastes of Web surfers, many of whom like to get their news from a wide variety of sources.

The New York Times on the Web has two e-mail newsletters -- Drive Times (on autos) and DealBook (on business) -- that include blurbs and links to outside news sources.

The Washington Post's site features two online-only columns --  Filter (on technology) and Media Notes (on media) -- that include quotes and links to outside sources. Advance.net's regional hubs and MSNBC.com have gone blog-wild with Weblogs that have almost total freedom to link.

And The Wall Street Journal Online has two regular features, The Daily Fix (on sports), and The Daily Scan (on health news), that regularly link outside the pay walls of WSJ.com.

"Outside linking is not only not a problem ... it's a necessity. It's Web-smart. It's what the audience expects of us." -- Jeff Jarvis, president, Advance.net

"We've found that when we can aggregate content from other sites -- and do it with our own analysis and insight, as these features do -- we create a lot of value for our readers. And they love it," said Wall Street Journal Online managing editor Bill Grueskin. 

"Outside linking is not only not a problem, not only a non-issue, it's a necessity; it's Web-smart; it's what the audience expects of us," says Advance.net president and creative director Jeff Jarvis, a blogging advocate. "Look at the popularity and utility of Weblogs -- which edit the Web for you -- and you can see that the more we find good resources on the Web for our readers, the better it is for our readers and for us."

Advance.net runs a series of regional sites such as NJ.com for New Jersey and NOLA.com for New Orleans. If you go to NOLA.com's Weblog page, there's a dizzying list of local blogs, including three in-house blogs and a Weblogs forum. Jarvis says his bloggers have the freedom to link to competing and complementary news sources -- as long as it serves the reader.

"If you serve your readers well, they will recognize that and come back to your site first," he said via e-mail. "If you make your readers' lives difficult, they will start elsewhere the next time they look for something. So 'losing' one page view to someone else's story is only an investment in the relationship with the reader; it's far more important to gain readers' loyalty for frequent return visits than it is to underserve them once."

Beyond a monolithic view

That view makes a lot of sense, but it means a shift from the monolithic viewpoint of old-school news organizations that feel their news is the only news that matters. Most top U.S. news sites still restrict their offsite links in stories. Though NYTimes.com is starting to open up, its worldview remains slightly narrow.

"We don't typically link to outside sites for news content," said Christine Mohan, spokesperson for NYTimes.com. "Our goal is to be a full-service news site, so on the news verticals we primarily offer Times articles. We choose not to link to other news sites because either we have the content ourselves, or we will post a wire link until a Times report becomes available via our Continuous News Desk."

"We don't typically link to outside sites for news content. Our goal is to be a full-service news site ... We choose not to link to other news sites..." 
-- Christine Mohan, NYTimes.com spokesperson

Still, the site does run links to relevant resources such as Supreme Court or United Nations documents, and there's the CyberTimes Navigator, a guide to various sites on the Web. More intriguing yet are plans in the works for a "Web-only feature that will aggregate a number of quality news sources," according to Mohan. Though she couldn't give more details, she did say it wasn't going to be a Weblog.

Blogs have been a serious offsite-link-generator for MSNBC.com. The site's editor in chief, Dean Wright, started our e-mail conversation on a more proprietary note. "We already offer a broad and deep news report, based on reporting from NBC News and some of the best editorial partners in journalism, along with our own original reporting," he said. "I don't think we serve our users by linking to competitors' sites...A portal or search site without such original material obviously has a different mission."

When I asked Wright to explain his linking restrictions, he said editors and producers were responsible for making sure those sites aren't engaged in illegal activities or invading readers' privacy. But on the subject of Weblogs, Wright switched gears a bit, noting that MSNBC.com was "the first major news site to launch Weblogs that regularly link to outside content." He said they expected their bloggers to use the same judgment as editors in deciding on outside links.

A question of credibility

Sure enough, Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds, who writes a blog/column for MSNBC.com, says he hasn't had restrictions on the outside links in his column (except for a couple times he had to switch wire links to MSNBC's own stories).

The question remains whether MSNBC.com and other mainstream news sites will loosen offsite linking policies throughout their news content -- and not just in the niche areas of Weblogs and digests.

But Wright's concerns about the credibility of outside sources have been echoed by others. Jonathan Dube, the publisher of CyberJournalist.net, says that linking policies will vary depending on a site's mission -- but he doesn't view restrictions in terms of traffic.

"I think the key issue in deciding whether to link to other sites is not about traffic, but about what purpose it serves and how trustworthy the information is," Dube said via e-mail. "As a news source that people turn to for reliable information, news sites should maintain the same editorial standards for anything they put online, whether original articles or links to outside sites -- doing so is essential for news sites to maintain their credibility, and thus their value, to users."

Dube noted that Slate's "In Today's Papers" feature, which links to various top newspapers online, has been a traffic generator for Slate. Indeed, pioneering online-only sites such as CNET's News.com and Slate -- as well as newspaper sites such as the Providence (R.I.) Journal's Projo.com -- have been more open about linking to outside sites from the start.

Adrian Holovaty, lead developer for the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World Web site, says his site's open linking philosophy has actually improved their credibility as a one-stop solution for people who want Lawrence-related news.

"The best example I can think of is our coverage of the hiring of a new basketball coach at KU (University of Kansas)," he said. "We knew that Jayhawk fans from across the country would be checking our site every five minutes, hungry for any updates, so we gladly provided deep links to outside coverage as a service to our readers. You know what? It worked. That coverage resulted in some of the highest traffic numbers KUsports.com had ever seen."

Now that online news has been around for 10 years, perhaps it's time to put away those proprietary ideas about offsite linking. With the successful lead of so many smaller sites, maybe the big players are starting to come around to a more open source view of news, and placing real value on news digests, Weblogs and features that link outside the box.

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Related Links
Advance.net
CyberJournalist.net
Instapundit
KUSports.com: The Next Head 'Hawk
MSNBC.com
MSNBC.com's GlennReynolds.com Weblog
NOLA.com's Weblogs
NYTimes.com's CyberTimes Navigator
NYTimes.com's E-mail Newsletters (registration required)
Slate's In Today's Papers
University of Kansas Jayhawks
Wall Street Journal Online
Washingtonpost.com's Filter column
Washingtonpost.com's Media Notes column
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MSNBC.com editor Dean Wright

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Jeff Jarvis, president, Advance.net

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Jonathan Dube, cyberjournalist.net

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MSNBC.com blogger Glenn Reynolds

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