When to hyperlink within an online news story?
That’s a question that challenges even the most experienced online writers. Hyperlinks imbue a news story with the power of the World Wide Web, allowing writers to source information, explain detail and provide depth in ways unique to the medium.
Hyperlinks also allow writers to clutter stories, and to distract and mislead readers away from the narrative of the piece. No wonder that many writers ignore hyperlinks, leaving them to automated scripts in the site’s content management system, or a lame list of (sort of, maybe) “related links” at a post’s end, selected by an online editor who wasn’t included in the process until the very end.
Professor Ronald Yaros of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism has completed a study that offers online journalists and educators a bit of needed guidance on when, and when not, to use hyperlinks in a news story.
Yaros’ study tested two versions of New York Times stories: an original version, written in traditional “inverted pyramid” style, and a rewritten version in which background and explanatory information appeared much earlier. In each version, Yaros tested whether reader comprehension improved by using traditional links to related websites, or by linking technical terms instead to explanatory text that opened in smaller windows.
The explainer stories with the links to explanatory text did best. But the explanatory links didn’t perform so well in the traditional, inverted pyramid version of the story. In that version, the one with the traditional links performed better.
In other words, the type of story you are writing should influence your linking strategy.
I asked Yaros about the practical implications of this research, via e-mail.
Niles: How does a journalist decide when a story merits these types of explanatory links?
Yaros: The first question is whether the content is simple or complex for a general audience to understand? For example, does one need at least one high school course to understand this topic? Communicators have always had to impute audience knowledge, estimating what audiences know and understand. If a digital story is complex, such as news about Japan’s nuclear reactors, explanatory narrative text should be strategically combined with specific explanatory links to communicate one coherent story. That decision needs to made at the outset, not after the text is already written.
Niles: How would you suggest people incorporate this?
Yaros: When beginning a story, students need to envision multimedia, not just text. “Related” graphics, links, video, polls, and animations are not as effective when added to text later, or if they are treated as a separate “explainer.” A coherent multimedia story – like a traditional newspaper story – must be coherent to maximize a user’s engagement and comprehension.
Niles: So there is still an effective place for “traditional” linking to outside websites within news stories?
Yaros: Yes. The results from my study showed that traditional “inverted pyramid” stories about issues most users understand communicate better with “traditional” linking to outside websites. In fact, users comprehended LESS content when explanatory links were combined with the inverted pyramid (compared to an explanatory narrative).
Niles: What drew you to this topic?
Yaros: I worked in broadcast journalism for about 10 years followed by another 10 running an educational software company. When it became obvious to me in the 1990s that we were entering a new world of how information is produced, shared and consumed, I was convinced then – as I am today – that more applied research is needed if we are to anticipate changes in how future news audiences will engage with multimedia and mobile devices. Instead of keeping up with today’s newest tools, my research tries to identify trends that predict how improved video and faster speeds in the future – using new products, such as the iPhone5, iPad3, 4GS network and social tools – will influence a savvy multitasking audience.
Since beginning my Ph.D. program in 2000, the mission has been to research how audiences learn from multiple platforms. My work commenced by applying and testing the traditional ways people comprehended text then building on that foundation for the web by adding photos, video, audio, links, etc. The outcome is the “P-I-C-K News” model that simultaneously combines: (1) personalized content, (2) interactivity, such as different types of links, and (3) coherence in multiple media with (4) minimal “kick outs” (or things that terminate one’s interest in content).
Niles: What about additional research on this topic?
Yaros: The “crisscross” pattern in the results show that linear explanatory links were best with linear explanatory texts, and traditional links to other websites were more effective with the inverted pyramid. What we don’t yet know is why. My guess is that when a user encounters a news story, he or she immediately employs a particular comprehension strategy because they sense what will be needed to understand it. That’s only a guess at this point.
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What strategy do you use (if any) to decide when to place hyperlinks within your posts? I’d love to hear your advice to other journalists, in the comments.