The difference between linking and citing is the difference between showing and telling. I’m not a big fan of citing, mainly because it gets in the way: we might learn a lot about where the Haas School of Business might be, but at the same time we’ll learn nothing useful about the increase in the number of rental households. On the other hand, if Rich had simply said that “about six million more households are renting”, complete with hyperlink, that would have been shorter, more useful, and more accurate, even if there were no explicit citation.
Similarly, there’s a case to be made that Vascellaro could and should simply have put out a one-line story under the exact same headline (“Apple Acquires App-Search Engine Chomp”), saying “I’ve talked to Apple and they confirm this story is true.” Vascellaro had exactly one new piece of information: Apple’s confirmation of the news. In a world where TechCrunch is only a click away, why write out a lazy rehash of what Siegler had already written, rather than just linking to his story and moving on to breaking and writing something more interesting?
One reason is that the WSJ still has a hugely successful print product, and that therefore WSJ journalists’ pieces need to work in print as well as online. What’s more, as people increasingly read WSJ.com stories offline, on things like the WSJ iPad app, the need for those stories to be reasonably comprehensive remains. Even in the age of the hyperlink. Here’s Stray:
Rewriting is required for print, where copyright prevents direct use of someone else’s words. Online, no such waste is necessary: A link is a magnificently efficient way for a journalist to pass a good story to the audience.
The problem is that a journalist never really knows whether their work is going to be read online or offline, even if they’re writing solely for the web. The story might get downloaded into an RSS reader, to be consumed offline. It might be emailed to someone with a Blackberry who can’t possibly be expected to open a hyperlink in a web browser. It might even get printed out and read that way.
Besides, the simple fact is that even if people can follow links, most of the time they don’t. An art of writing online is to link to everything, but to still make your piece self-contained enough that it makes sense even if your reader clicks on no links at all. Cryptic sentences which make no sense until you click on them are arch and annoying.
What’s more, as Stray says, “online writing needs to be shorter, sharper, and snappier than print”; his link will take you to Michael Kinsley, moaning about how “newspaper stories are written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine”. In that context, does it really behoove reporters to build a long list of sources into all of their stories? Does every news story need to link to the organization which first broke the news? Does every journalist need to hat-tip the friend of theirs who retweeted the nugget which ultimately resulted in their story?
My feeling is that commodity news is a commodity: facts are in the public domain, and don’t belong to anybody. If you’re mentioning a fact which you sourced in a certain place, then it’s a great idea to link to that place. And if you’re matching a story which some other news organization got first, it’s friendly and polite to mention that fact in your piece, while linking to their story. But it’s always your reader who should be top of mind — and the fact is that readers almost never care who got the scoop.