Why Christian Science Monitor stories have too many links, wrong ones

I often don’t read my own articles in The Christian Science Monitor. The volume of hyperlinks the publication drops in their copy is just too distracting. Consider this Op-Ed on volunteerism among Millennials. Not only does it contain no fewer than 28 links, but among them are a number of highly disruptive, full-line links to Monitor content, screaming things like, “RELATED: Top 4 obstacles for young people – and how to cope.” The all-caps grabber and full-line disruption is more befitting an ad for a used-car dealer than the innards of a respected news provider.

This one article contains five full line-break links to Monitor articles, and a sixth pasted after the writer’s bio. Every one of the 28 hyperlinks connects readers to Monitor content; readers aren’t afforded a single axon to outside information. The reason the article is littered with so many hyperlinks, a Monitor editor told me, is that the publication uses a computer program which scours copy and inserts links beneath words like “Tulsa,” “Harvard,” and “Twitter,” which direct readers to past Monitor stories.

These links are not placed to provide readers with the richest evidence and information accrued during newsgathering for the story at hand. The Monitor tries hard to keep its readers contained in its site. On many occasions I’ve submitted Op-Eds to The Monitor containing links to information and evidence I think readers will find helpful; the links also support the integrity of my reporting. These links, though, don’t make it past the publication’s self-containing software, in part due to technical limitations. But that’s not all.

“We also don’t have the manpower to vet and shepherd through links that our contributors might ask us to include,” Monitor editor John Yemma told me in an email. “We do favor links to our own journalism, since we invest heavily in it, are confident about its quality, and want to invite readers to engage more deeply with the Monitor,” he said. “We weigh all opinions — as we will yours — in our ongoing effort to improve our presentation of news.”

It’s not just the CSM

Plenty of news organizations over-link to themselves, not just the Monitor. GlobalPost, for example, drops the same line-break links in their copy that direct readers to more of their in-house content. It’s highly distracting and their splatter-paint linking practices give their copy a cheap feel. (Between the byline and dateline, this GlobalPost article contains an ad promising foolproof strategies for buying and selling gold).

I appreciate that competition for unique visitors online is brutal, and understand the importance of keeping visitors within one’s site. But alienating audiences with an atlas of routes to old content turns readers off.

Who gets linking right

This is why some news organizations don’t do it. The Daily Beast, for example, often seems more purposeful in its linking practices within articles, and the publication routinely links to information from outside locations. Howard Kurtz’s column shows some restraint in hyperlinking, and the media critic is permitted to direct readers to outside sources he finds pertinent. The Beast’s home page is wildly in your face and Huffington Post-like, but the outlet’s original reporting is actually readable.

Columbia Journalism Review, for which I write, similarly links to content in ways that serve the readers, not solely their unique-visitor count. When I submit a column to CJR with links to evidence supporting the arguments I’m making, my editor publishes them. While CJR is a non-profit publication (and also subsidized by a non-profit organization, as is The Christian Science Monitor) and one with an academic bent, its quest for visitors, subscribers, and donors is no less intense than that of any other publication.

There is a balance online news organizations must strike when deciding how many links to slap into their articles. Offer too few links and readers may wonder about the integrity of referenced evidence. Burying readers in self-serving links, however, is amateurish and can frustrate news consumers.

A visible link in a news story is a caesura, a stoppage that forces a cognitive pause. The word “caesura” is a poetry term and, just as in poetic writing, literary pauses must be used with both caution and cause.

“Hyperlinks,” wrote Nicholas Carr in “The Shallows,” “alter our experience of media … Links don’t just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them. They encourage us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them.” He goes on to say that links’ “value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause.”

“[I]t is critical,” Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach wrote in the 2011 book “Blur,” “that we use the promise offered by emerging communications technologies to create a journalism that joins journalists and citizens in a journey of mutual discovery.” This promise is broken when online news outfits carpet bomb news audiences with links, and do so solely with self-serving connections to in-house reports.

I understand this column may change my relationship with overlinking publications like The Christian Science Monitor (though I hope it doesn’t). But before all else — except a husband and North Carolina Tar Heel — I’m a journalism critic. News organizations that celebrate themselves too visibly run the risk of having their integrity reconsidered.

Justin D. Martin, Ph.D., is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin

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  • Anonymous

    Justin, we were JUST talking about this issue in the journalism class that I teach at Boston University. One of my students (who interns at Global Post) posted your piece to our Facebook group.
    In class I encouraged them to think strategically about linking and not to just “carpet bomb” as you put it.My old editor used to joke about “giving the people something for their money,” and I feel like that applies to links. Yes, it’s time-consuming to do the digging, vet, and link, but the value of human-powered curation is no small thing when you’re trying to engage and build an audience.So, while it’s great to point them to quality internal coverage, they also come to mainstream site for filters to wider content, too. And sometimes they just appreciate the convenince.So, for instance, I took AP and everyone who ran the following to task this a.m. because none of them linked to the report mentioned in this piece: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/pew-study-facebook-users-more-050328170.htmlIt wasn’t hard to find the report, but the fact that I had to go searching for it was irritating.I know everyone’s struggling with staffing issues, but is it possible to have something between zero and carpet bombing robo linking?

  • http://www.zimbio.com/Bodybuilding/articles/i6R3foHZ7wM/Ageless+Male+Muscle+Building+Review+Ageless Ageless Male Muscle Building

    At least you were honest and not trying to be a smart
    (donkey). I felt it was a legitimate question because I have NEVER seen
    the doors to the christian science reading room open.
     

  • http://twitter.com/westseattleblog West Seattle Blog

    Glad to see someone talking about linking practices but don’t let it stop anyone from providing them – totally disagree that they are an interruption in the experience UNLESS your visual strategy involves icons, jarring colors, the referenced break in the copy to say “here’s a related story.” Also, sadly, after almost 18 years of journalism on the web (either fulltime or as a complement to TV), I still don’t think links tend to compel people to drift off the story often enough! We get comments sometimes adding links that were actually already in the story. (And why is it that web-design purists believe that links should NOT open a new window? If they do, that is more user-friendly, because it means you don’t lose the original page in case you REALLY drift off …) Last observation but not least, please continue supporting the open Web by linking, so that every page is a hub of a wheel with many spokes. Even if your links are largely internal, at least you’re not in a walled garden like at least one social-media behemoth that would just as soon turn the open Web into an abandoned desert …

  • http://twitter.com/fashionluvr Fashion Luvr

    I don’t like how NYT does their links, mostly all internal and when they link its not a deep link to the proper page, just to the home.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KS6MFDFKWEXRLSO4RL6BPI6J4E JOrr

    It’s the way that it is.  Content wins.  If people like the content, they don’t mind the links.  

    As John Yemma (my former boss) said, news outlets are constantly experimenting and testing.  Usability studies go along with that.  These studies can help you balance helpful navigation with other necessary strategies.

    You try to provide an environment that is helpful for the reader but also entices the reader to dig deeper onto the site.  And you want to strengthen your site SEO-wise as much as you can without having negative repercussions to the reader.

    Again, content wins.  If it’s good content, you can have a strong linking strategy that respects the reader but also strengthens the site.

    Jimmy Orr
    Managing Editor, Digital
    Los Angeles Times

  • Wiki Wiki

    Wikipedia is opensourced, so anyone can correct a broken link and is encouraged to do so. Statements in Wikipedia entries are expected to be sourced.

  • http://twitter.com/tomprete Tom Prete

    While I would generally agree that links in news articles should be
    directly relevant to the story at hand, I would love to see data on
    whether the issue you point out really bothers readers or merely clashes
    with our own taste. Also, I immediately thought of one site that links
    at least as much as the CSM but where the links seem useful instead of
    distracting: Wikipedia. Wikipedia entries are not news articles, of
    course, but if too many links in a news article are bad, it would be
    useful to explore whether all those links in Wikipedia also are bad —
    and if they aren’t, what characteristics of Wikipedia permit the links
    to be good in that context

    Sorry if this appears as a duplicate comment — I was signed in to another Twitter account when I first posted. The comment should appear under my name only.

  • http://twitter.com/OBBulletin Ocean Beach Bulletin

    While I would generally agree that links in news articles should be directly relevant to the story at hand, I would love to see data on whether the issue you point out really bothers readers or merely clashes with our own taste. Also, I immediately thought of one site that links at least as much as the CSM but where the links seem useful instead of distracting: Wikipedia. Wikipedia entries are not news articles, of course, but if too many links in a news article are bad, it would be useful to explore whether all those links in Wikipedia also are bad — and if they aren’t, what characteristics of Wikipedia permit the links to be good in that context?

  • http://twitter.com/Justin_D_Martin Justin D. Martin

    Thank you, John. While I do challenge some CSM linking practices, there is no shortage of things I love about The Christian Science Monitor, especially its fine tradition of international coverage. I praise the Monitor for other practices, too. In a column for Columbia Journalism Review on news organizations that take months or even years to pay their freelancers, I noted that the Monitor has always been extremely prompt in compensating me for my work (as is Poynter). 

    http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/dear_news_organizations_stop_being_deadbeats.php 

    Glad to know I stress-tested the bridge without burning it. – Justin

  • John Yemma

    No worries, Justin. Your views of our linking strategy are hardly reason for us to change our relationship with you. As noted when we corresponded yesterday, like every serious news site, we are constantly experimenting, testing, learning, and adjusting. That is true of our linking strategy. Any number of readers, visitors, and critics may feel we aren’t hitting the mark in some aspect of how we present online news. That’s fair. We are trying to figure out the best approach in this dynamic and demanding medium.