FAIRWAY, KS — It’s no secret: with a few exceptions, newspapers remain way behind the journalistic curve in taking advantage of what the Web can do. But those same newspapers are still a leading source for important investigative and accountability journalism—especially in areas away from major media markets, like the Midwestern states I cover for CJR. The result is that we get a lot of valuable reporting that isn’t, as they say, optimized for digital.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Many newspapers these days are hard-pressed to pay for serious programming and data expertise, but there is a lot you can accomplish with a little creativity and flexibility, and an awareness of how people read online. Here are a few lessons, drawn from some recent special reports that worked well on the Web—and some other instances of good reporting that weren’t as well-served by their digital display.
Link, link, and link some more
The most glaring omission in many newspaper stories as they appear online—and the clearest sign that reporters and editors, even in 2013, aren’t working with the Web in mind—is the lack of hyperlinks. This is true even in major investigative reports. The Kansas City Star’s series on “Beef’s Raw Edges,” an investigation into food safety published in January, has an attractive landing page, but the stories themselves contain almost no links at all. The same is true in this Des Moines Register series on gun permits published in March and May. This year’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch series on Missouri soldiers in Afghanistan does feature related links in a sidebar, as most P-D online stories do, but no links in the story text itself.
The lack of hyperlinks is, above all, a huge missed opportunity for self-promotion. An online news package needs well-placed links to move the reader from one story to the next. Internal links are the best way to keep readers on-site.
To see internal linking done right, check out this article from the Tampa Bay Times’ award-winning 2012 “Stand Your Ground” series, which features no fewer than 12 links embedded in the text leading to other stories in the series—in addition to a half-dozen sidebar links to related content. This kind of Web curation takes a little time to do, but it makes it that much easier for the interested reader to discover all of the hard work your staffers have done on stories of this magnitude.
But internal links are not enough. For the investigative journalist, external links can be particularly useful. The best way to substantiate your reporting is to link to your source material.
This summer, in an ongoing probe into mass-transit contracting practices, the San Diego-based investigative nonprofit inewsource.org tried a novel approach to linking. Reporter Brad Racino offered readers two versions of the same June 13 story, one with minimal hyperlinks and another with links in nearly every sentence—as seen here.
This approach allowed Racino to substantiate his reporting by linking to all of his source material, while not overwhelming readers who might be put off by so much hypertext. As it turned out, he later wrote, the hyper-hyperlinked version drew more page-views and longer visits than the conventional version.
Show your work
Most of the links in Racino’s story were to materials uploaded via DocumentCloud. This service, and others such as Scribd, make it easy for journalists to upload primary documents that substantiate their investigative work and share them with their readers.
For the KC Star report on the beef industry, the editors noted that “reporters … studied thousands of pages of documents obtained through a dozen state and federal open records requests and pored over thousands of pages of lawsuits, scientific studies, government audits and research reports.” But while a single, large, un-annotated PDF file was linked from the landing page—where it was confusingly labeled a “graphic”—none of these hard-won documents are linked in the stories themselves.
The Des Moines Register gun series did link to source material posted via DocumentCloud—and in one case used an annotation to draw readers’ attention to the relevant portion of a document—but buried the links at the bottom of an article rather than embedding them in the appropriate text in the body.
For investigative reports, such documents can and should receive more prominent placement. A 2010-2011 series in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, which revealed a prominent Civil Rights Movement photographer’s role as a longtime FBI informant, linked to dozens of materials uploaded via DocumentCloud in individual stories and highlighted them on the landing page as well:
Reporter Marc Perrusquia doggedly compiled FBI reports in investigating the photographer, and his colleague Grant Smith undertook the work of uploading the document archive for readers to see.