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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