Gawker’s Link Etiquette (or Lack Thereof)

Original stories deserve credit, yes, but also traffic

Jim Brady, former editor, summed up a lot in less than 140 characters on Twitter yesterday. Responding to the piece by a Washington Post reporter who felt ripped off by Gawker’s post about the reporter’s story, Brady wrote that he didn’t see the problem: “So, a few thousand people encountered something you wrote who might not have otherwise? Great!”

In other words, Gawker linked to the Post’s story, and drove traffic to it. Why complain about that?

But there are links and there are links, and the way Gawker does its linking seems somewhat cynical, designed more to keep readers at Gawker rather than enable readers to see the source they quote.

A good example is Gawker’s complimentary post Sunday about a courageous series in the St. Petersburg Times on the Church of Scientology. Gawker, appropriately, credited the Times up high for its reporting, and noted that the paper’s most recent article helped confirm some of the most troubling allegations raised in its previous stories.

Gawker’s post is a relatively long one—I had to scroll down five times on my monitor. And it’s filled with links. But, oh, look where those links go:

First screen: Two links, one to Gawker’s tag to posts about the St. Petersburg Times, the second a link to Gawker’s post about an earlier St. Petersburg Times story.

Second screen: Two links, one to an earlier Gawker post about John Travolta, the other is again to Gawker’s post about a St. Petersburg Times story.

Third screen: One link, this one to Gawker’s post about Tom Cruise.

Fourth screen: Two links, one to a post from, (a sister site with Gawker), and finally, a link to a story from the St. Petersburg Times.

Fifth screen: A final link, this one also to the St. Petersburg Times.

In other words, Gawker does link to the original source, and presumably does drive some traffic. But it provides just two links out of eight to the Times, and those two wind up at the end of the post.

I know from my own study of Web usage at that traffic from links falls off dramatically—as much as 95 percent—after a reader scrolls down two or more screens. That why Yahoo’s new home page occupies a mere screen-and-a-half. So by putting links to Gawker up high and links to the Times at the end, the blog is greatly reducing the amount of traffic that would go to the original source.

Keep in mind, this isn’t like that Washington Post feature that started the discussion. That was a fine piece, but one that, as the reporter himself acknowledges, isn’t going to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The St. Petersburg Times’s coverage of Scientology, though, is a noble example of a journalistic organization doing stellar and gutsy work, with the full understanding that lawsuits, or worse, could ensue.

I’m not arguing Gawker shouldn’t have blogged the story, or shouldn’t have excerpted parts of it. Given the extent of St. Petersburg’s coverage, Gawker’s excerpts seem to fall within Fair Use rules. But the Times ought to get more visible and more prominent links. The paper’s reporters and editors deserve not just credit but traffic, and a more upfront linking procedure would help ensure they get it.

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Bill Grueskin is former academic dean at Columbia Journalism School. He is now on the school's faculty and is also executive editor/training at Bloomberg News.