Thursday, September 15, 2005

Link Editor: Putting Journalism in Context

"As recognition of the site grows, Wikipedia is increasingly referenced for breaking news, not just general background information, even more than its own news offshoot, WikiNews. Articles are often posted immediately, as an event unfolds, as opposed to a traditional encyclopedia whose articles are purely retrospect.

"For instance, in April, Wikipedia had the same percentage of people browsing for info on Pope Benedict as did CNN.com. The difference with Wikipedia is as time passes, more people contribute to an entry that was once breaking news, adding new information and deleting or clarifying that which was disproved, producing well-rounded encyclopedic entries."

"When writing a story, journalists could link to a Wikipedia entry or other reference to provide background information for the reader." ...

"Adding such background links may be beneficial in holding younger readers attention. Think about a twelve year-old who is asked to do a report on a current events article and finds one concerning the Israeli/Palestinian conflict published in a major national paper. It may be the student's first encounter with the issue and thus, at first glance, the article will not make much sense to the student.

"But if their were links to background information integrated in the article, the young reader will not only be able to understand the gist of the story, but also may develop an interest in it and begin to follow it daily in the newspaper. This idea is also relevant for anyone who picks up the paper in the middle of a developing story. Online newspapers of the future may thus act as virtual information super-links aside from their role as purveyors of quality journalism.

"Keeping this in mind, the future newsroom may have an additional employee: a 'link editor' (if the position ever takes hold I'll try to come up with a more original job title). The bearer of this responsibility would be charged with reading drafts of articles before they are published, adding any relevant links to names, places, events, etc., in the text.

"The journalist, as many of you may realize, does not have time to complete such a task. The link editor would work from a database and if ever they crossed an obscure reference, would search for background, link it with the article and place it in the database for future reference. It could work in reverse as well: journalists could consult the link editor for quick background on a story idea.

"Of course, similar functions have already been technologically automated such as a service that links words to a dictionary site, which is useful for improving ones vocabulary. But such a position in a newsroom could result in more informed, fulfilled and happier readers, indeed the type of reader that returns to read your newspaper the following day."

This is one of the best articles/entries I've seen yet describing what I once did at CWA, and what I try to do here on The Mountaintop Report.

When I was at CWA, I was basically "the Web guy." More officially known as the Communication Operations Assistant at first, and later the Internet Communications Coordinator.

A little background here is helpful (ironically enough). As I see it, there is a spectrum of development possibilities out there, specifically as it relates to publishing. On one end, you have the very inefficient, "let's have separate plain HTML files" or "let's use a WYSIWYG editor like FrontPage." For small sites, some can make this work, but it takes a lot of effort to maintain any kind of consistency, branding, navigation and structure on the site.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have your high end sites like your cable news counterparts, news wires and the like that use databases to automate the transition from editing to publishing. But as editorsweblog pointed out, you don't get the hypertext effect from journalists that have neither the time nor mental constructs to use such Web tools to effectively help them put their writings into context for people.

In terms of the Web publishing spectrum, there is a happy middle ground that uses a serving technique called Server Side Includes (SSI). With this, one is able to carve up page code into unique and reusable parts. Not only does this maintain consistency of appearance, navigation and structure, but it's also fast. A friend of mine has a very successful service that is heavily built on this technique.

When I was at CWA, after rebuilding their Web site from scratch, I eventually set things up to where instead of writings going directly from approval to the Web, I would have the approved text sent to me. There my goal was more to apply good usability principles of writing for the Web to the texts we would publish, and part of that included adding links to various institutions we named, articles we had written, and the like.

At the time, 1998-2002, more than Wikipedia, this was modeled after the CNET of Halsey Minor, which was "user-driven" enough to link as appropriate, competition or not.

Since leaving CWA, and later starting this blog, I have tried to do the exact same thing here. I highlight articles and excerpts that strike me as worth reading, and when I mostly quote the text here, including this entry, I take the text a step further and for the most part add exactly those kind of links to the text.

There's a lot more I could say and have said on these things, but this is enough for now.

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