By the end of the day, I realized that different news organizations follow different hyperlink strategies. There’s the HuffPo “mullet strategy” of news presentation (business up front, party in the back). HuffPo looks clean but then links to other places with user-generated content and unverifiable assertions. It lets the reader do the heavy lifting and determine accuracy, sorting the valid from the invalid. This strategy keeps readers entertained—but it also distracts readers, and can lead them to unreliable information.
Corporate media hyperlinks—found at places like the Times, Fox News, Time, CNN, and MSNBC—mostly direct the reader to other pages within the site. This keeps readers with the same news source, but has the disadvantage of potentially boring the reader. MSNBC was a major violator here, with hyperlinks to its dreary “fact-check” page.
While I haven’t heard much discussion about news organizations’ “hyperlink policies,” it’s clear that hyperlinking is a strategic decision. The circuitous link strategy makes sense if your publication is really worried about people getting distracted or if your publication really has the best content (it does happen). But with links you do want to distract people a little, because it somehow makes the publication seem current and interesting. You want to let the reader explore a little.
As Jenny Lyn Bader explained in a Times article back in 2000:
In the old-media world, the question was how to get the audience to stay with you. In the new-media world, it is how to get the audience to leave and come back again. After all, it is not readability that makes for greatness on the Web: it is clickability.
Call it the Miracle on 34th Street strategy: the goal of sending visitors away from your site is, ultimately, to keep them coming back.
The problem with this strategy is that all of this linking around—the new work of reading the news—mainly just introduces the reader to a bunch of things he has to ignore in order to digest the content of a story. The thing that kept plaguing me in the course of this project was: What am I missing now? I’d discovered the Toledo Blade; I’d discovered Daily Kos and taken an updated tour through MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN. There were millions of potentially untapped sources. The process of attempting to connect this, to note every hyperlink, where it came from and where it led, proved impossible. The stories kept changing, the hyperlinks kept dying, and I could never figure out the best way to address and synthesize the media. Trying to figure out what I did that day was like building with dry sand; the history of my day kept slipping though my fingers.
I felt the way I think a gerbil would feel, running around that wheel. You’re never done. Because if your only goal is to follow the news, you quickly discover that the news never ends. It just refreshes itself.
This article is part of our online supplement to the November/December print issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. To read that issue’s cover story, entitled “Overload!: Journalism’s battle for relevance in an age of too much information”, click here. Part two of Daniel Luzer’s journey through linkspace is coming soon.