I had evolved my strategy so to just follow the link chain in a single article, rather than use links to actually become informed. Admittedly, these hyperlinks were sort of interesting (the name of the plumbers’ union is almost twenty words long. Who knew?). But they still weren’t terribly informative. My original goal was to learn all I could about Joe the Plumber but, despite copious linking, there really wasn’t anything to learn here—or anywhere.
The Times had a page with information about everything with regard to the McCain campaign. There was a similar link to Barack Obama’s campaign, but I followed McCain for a minute. There was basic biographical information, links to all NYT articles about him, a link to his Almanac of American Politics entry (requiring login: dead-end). The TimesMcCain page also had a link to John McCain’s Facebook page, in which McCain reported that his favorite TV shows are 24 (duh) and Seinfeld (really?). Obama lists his favorite show as SportsCenter, which seems like sort of a cop-out. Back to McCain news, I saw a link to 2006 Time magazine article about the McCain family, “The McCains and War: Like father, like son.” This linked to another Time article about “grading the final presidential debate.”
Sigh. I now understood how Huffington Post works. I’d always wondered why the site features three-inch headlines and lots of links to celebrity gossip. Now I know; reading nothing but news—alot of news—is boring.
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.