Journalists: Link To Win

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

People have, on occasion, described TechCrunch (and ex-TechCrunch) writers are “bratty” in their writing style. MG Siegler does a pretty good job of proving the point in his complaints last week about the lack of credit he got from the Wall Street Journal:

Earlier today, I broke some news.
I don’t typically do this anymore given my new job. But from time to time this will happen. But if you read The Wall Street Journal, you’d never know. Why’s that? Because they’re fuckheads who don’t credit actual sources of information.

But, you know what? Bratty or not, he has a point. There’s a whole underlying cultural issue behind all of this, one that is deeply embedded in the journalistic workflow. Sometimes, when training journalists in blogging, I’ve said something like this:

“Most magazines exist in this strange alternate reality where their competitor doesn’t exist. They’ll acknowledge anything that happens in their industry, other than the work done by their competitors.”

It was the start of an argument about linking to your competitors, rather than just rewriting their exclusives without acknowledging them – which is what seems to pass for standard practice these days. No wonder we slipped so easily into rewriting press releases when we’ve been rewriting other journalists for years…

Here’s the thing: not linking (or acknowledging) the reporter that broke the story first is part of the competition game that publications play between themselves. And you know who gets played? The readers. They’re the ones you’re trying to fool when you don’t link to the original story, and if they happen to read both publications – which many do – you’re busted. And you just made yourself look like a second-rate journalist, and a bad loser to boot.

As Matthew Ingram puts it:

I think that failure to link decreases the trust readers have, because it suggests (or tries to imply) that the outlet in question came by the information independently when they did not.

Perhaps it’s all been exacerbated by the perilous financial situation that most publications find themselves in right now. Indeed, our national press only seem ready to acknowledge the existence of each other when the time comes to go on the attack, as Fleet Street Blue notes.

David Weinberger makes the “public good” argument for linking:

I think there’s another reason why reports ought to link to their, um, inspirations: Links are a public good. They create a web that is increasingly rich, useful, diverse, and trustworthy. We should all feel an obligation to be caretakers of and contributors to this new linked public.

However, I’ll give you a more basic, a more commercial reason for linking to your competitors. If you give your readers confidence that you’ll link freely and generously to the best work done elsewhere, you’ve just given them another reason – and a compelling one –  to visit your site first. Don’t win through pretending you broke the story; win by being the most comprehensive place to go to find information on a topic.

Update: Steve Buttry has some excellent reasons for linking, too.


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.