The ethic of the link layer on news

A few shows ago, On the Media reported on a revolt against the Associated Press in Ohio, where papers across the state are trading and publishing each others’ original stories rather than sending them through the AP homogenizer. There are a few important implications in this, one about the fate of the AP and the other about an ethic I think news organizations must adopt to link to and promote original journalism.

The link layer on news

In the ecosystem of links and the new architecture of news that it spawns, I believe it is vital that we as an industry find ways to point to and give credit to original reporting. That is how original journalism will be supported, in the end: by monetizing the audience that comes to it, whether through advertising or contributions.

This leads to a new Golden Rule of Links in journalism — link unto others’ good stuff as you would have them link unto your good stuff. This emerges from blogging etiquette but is exactly contrary to the old, competitive ways of news organizations: wasting now-precious resources matching competitors’ stories so you could say you’d done it yourself. That must change.

This ethic of the link will become all the more important as news organizations pare down to their essence. I’ve said often that they will have to do what they do best and link to the rest.

And I believe that it will become important for us to link to our sources and influences — as well as transcripts and additional reporting — to show readers how we arrived where we have in a story. When I was last in London, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger called this footnoting a story. He’s better educated than I; I’ll call it linkboxing.

Add that together and we end up with a new link layer atop the news: links to original reporting; links to complementary reporting; links to sources (not to mention links to and from discussions). It’s part of the new architecture of news that I wrote and doodled about here. Upendra Shardanand, the founder of Daylife (where I am a partner), wrote about it here, arguing that the key to the new architecturer is superior navigation to news.

This is why I got excited about working on Daylife, because I believe it provides key infrastructure for this link layer: It allows sites to link to the world’s coverage of a topic — so they can link to the rest and so they can put stories in context — and it also sends traffic to journalism. One thing we’re working on is finding ways to get better at sending traffic to journalism at its source. There are a few algorithmic solutions to see who was early in on a story, but this is also where the ethic of the link also comes in: If everyone links to — not just attributes but links to — the Washington Post’s coverage of Walter Reed then it will make it easier to find where stories begin. We should expose credit where credit is due.

The link layer is also why I got involved with Publish2, sitting on its board, because it will provide the platform for that linkboxing. I say all this not just to plug two companies in which I have an interest but to show that there is a method to my madness. I want to be involved in building of the new architecture of news.

The Associated Press and the link layer

So now I return to the Associated Press. This new ecology of news is what’s at work in Ohio. By running other papers’ stories, the newsrooms are participating in a print version of linking to original journalism. Importantly, these stories are not going through the AP mill, being rewritten under an AP style and brand (which its contract with papers allows because the AP is a cooperative). Instead, now the original stories are getting more attention across the state.

Susan Goldberg, editor of the Plain Dealer, told Bob Garfield on OtM: “I think it’s a lot better because we can get the stories faster. Nobody is rewriting them. … We don’t really need that function.” And later: “I frankly think we’re getting better, more distinctively written stories because they’re not going through the AP mill. But I also think that it does allow us to make some smarter choices. We, and everybody else, have smaller staffs than we used to, and we’ve got to pick some priorities.”

What she’s saying, to translate into Buzzmachinese, is that they’re doing what they does best and linking to the rest and they are linking to original journalism: the new architecture at work.

I have no doubt the Goldberg-Garfield interview caused a hard gulp down the street from me at AP HQ, where they’re dealing with budget-choked newspapers complaining about rates. That is what this little revolt is really about. These dissidents are not trying to kill the AP; they depend upon it more now that their staffs are shrinking. But one wonders what a world looks like with a shrunken AP or, God forbid, without one.

Does the AP possibly become more of a curator of original stories than a reprocessing mill? What reporting does it still need to do complement the work that local papers do best? Do they still need state wires and bureaux or can papers indeed go it alone? As papers inevitably become more local, will they — should they — even bother with national and international news or should they just link to it via smart aggregation?

How does competitor Reuters play into this? Is it in a better position because it is not hampered as a cooperative and is building a consumer brand? I’ve talked about a reverse syndication model as a new opportunity, which was actually sprung from a talk with an AP executive but it is Reuters that is executing on it (rather than syndicating its content to Yahoo, Reuters is now sending them headlines, Yahoo sends Reuters traffic, and Reuters shares the revenue that results; this is linking with money attached). What does a combination of Reuters’ original reporting and, say, Daylife’s aggregation provide in covering the rest of the world?

This gets even more complex when journalism busts out of its professional fence and it is practiced by many people in many places: the ecosystem only explodes. The AP acknowledges that new structure in its deal with Now Public and Reuters does likewise in its deal with Global Voices.

The transformation of news is obviously not as simple as taking print stories and putting them online and even getting fancy adding video and comments. This transformation is happening at a fundamental, architectural level that has impact we are only beginning to figure out.

But out of this discussion, I’d like to start here: with a discussion of the ethic of the link in journalism.

: LATER: In my email, I just got a link to an important study the AP conducted on news use in the next generation. The PDF of the presentation is here (I don’t see a link to the PR yet). The AP’s Jim Kennedy told my students at CUNY about this. They propose a new model of multiple entry points into news — a new way to look at the process — around facts, updates, background, and followup.

Note well that the AP is trying to get its industry to think ahead and rearchitect news but that’s no easy job.

: Reading the AP study… One of the most intriguing findings is that young people use news to build social capital (to converse or to impress).