Is linking a ‘keystone habit’ that can convert newsrooms to ‘open journalism?’

Elaine Clisham was shaking her head at the latest dust-up over whether media organizations should link to other news outlets and sources of information in their reporting on the web.

On Twitter recently, Mathew Ingram and others again debated media organizations' failure to link to other sources.

Clisham said that newspaper industry leaders such as her former American Press Institute colleague Steve Buttry had been preaching the importance of linking for years.

“The fact we’re still talking about this is exactly the problem!” she wrote on Twitter in response to a discussion among MG Siegler, Mathew Ingram, Charles Arthur and Caitlin Fitzsimmons that was sparked by Siegler’s scoop of the Wall Street Journal on a story, and the Journal’s subsequent refusal to link to his original story when they followed up on the news with independent confirmation.

But the fact is, the newspaper industry wasn’t listening to Buttry. Linking is still a foreign concept if you are still writing the same story you used to write for print, except that it’s also published on the web. And linking does not come easily with content management systems built for print editions.

(Full disclosure: Buttry is now community engagement and social media director for the company I work for, Digital First Media/Journal Register Company, which means we, at least, have to listen to him).

Buttry makes the case far better than I could in a recent blog post referencing the Siegler-Wall Street Journal spat, “4 reasons why linking is good journalism; 2 reasons why linking is good business.” See also this 2010 Jonathan Stray post he references. And Ingram’s recap, “Is linking just polite, or is it a core value of journalism?

But I wonder if the practice of linking – or reporters’ and editors’ failure to do so – could be far more significant than we realize in the transition to digital journalism.

In his new book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business,” New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg writes about “keystone habits” that have defined or transformed both corporate cultures and individuals’ lives.

He tells the story of how Paul O’Neill shocked investors when he first took over as CEO of Alcoa by saying nothing about profits, but instead telling executives that the company’s number one goal would be to improve worker safety.

“I knew I had to transform Alcoa,” O’Neill told me. “But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

O’Neill’s approach at Alcoa led to record profits. The focus on worker safety prompted a cultural change that instituted a more disciplined and conscientious approach to all aspects of the business.

O’Neill’s success at Alcoa is just one example of a keystone habit, a pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organization. Keystone habits, I found in writing my book, can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.

What could be a bigger “keystone habit” of journalism that is part of the open and networked web than linking?

And what could be a bigger “keystone habit” of just plain and basic good journalism than what Buttry calls out as “honesty, transparency, attribution and context?”

We are teaching reporters and editors to link out as part of our Digital Ninja School newsroom training experiment. And a new content management system built by Saxotech that we are rolling out across Journal Register Company combines print and digital and incorporates the ability to link at every step in the process.

But I wonder if it should be moving closer to the top of our list. Maybe linking is the “keystone habit” that could be the lynchpin to creating newsrooms that are truly “digital first.”

UPDATE: Alex Howard had this to say on Twitter about my last sentence:


I agree we aren’t “digital first” without linking. The “maybe” part is wondering if this one key aspect of digital first is a behavior that, if embraced by all, could become the catalyst for bigger change.

4 thoughts on “Is linking a ‘keystone habit’ that can convert newsrooms to ‘open journalism?’

  1. AmandaWBS says:

    I can’t believe that it’s 2012 and I still regularly have to write major newspapers to ask why they haven’t linked to (e.g.) the very study their article is about.

    I don’t get it. I love newspapers, and I love good writing, and I especially love accurate, timely information presented in a way that truly informs the reader. And yet for a story like that to make it on the web, it has to pass through at least two or three people — NONE of whom think to link to the underlying study or report?

    That’s not even an intra-journalist turf war! It’s just bad journalism.


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