Attribution and Linking Are Essential to Transparency

MUD day 4:

If you’re a B2B journalist or a journalistically inclined content marketer, you should be faithfully following Steve Buttry’s blog. Although he’s a died-in-the-wool (UPDATE: um . . . I meant “dyed-in-the-wool”) newspaper guy, he deals frequently and insightfully with issues that also plague trade editors and reporters. A good example is from Buttry’s post on Monday, in which he offers advice on attribution. It’s an age-old issue for trade journalists that has only intensified in the online era.

Though by all means you should read his entire post, I want to cover a few of his points that particularly apply in the trade press. The first is the thorny issue of press releases. As Buttry says, the idea of a press release is that you can freely crib from it—the company that sent it to you will be perfectly happy if you do. But you may do your reader a disservice if you don’t explicitly attribute the copy to the press release.

This is particularly true of quotes within the press release. Too often editors pick up the quote and attribute it directly to the speaker, as though they had interviewed the source or attended a press briefing. But instead of “… CEO Smith said,” it should be ” … CEO Smith said in a press release.

A related issue that Buttry brings up has to do with what he calls recycled quotes. As he says, “If you didn’t hear the person say something, you should probably attribute the quote not only to the speaker but to the medium that reported it.”

A few years ago, I had an editor who handed in a story with fantastic quotes from a variety of C-level executives. Thinking he had interviewed them all, I complimented him on being able to get through to so many elusive sources. He blanched, then told me he’d taken the quotes from various sources on the Internet. Needless to say, he rewrote the story with proper attribution.

Some writers have the opposite problem, and turn guidelines into fetishes. Rather than focus their lead on the story, they focus it on the attribution. More frequently than I liked, our writers would start a story with a sentence such as “Ellis Q. Stone, Assistant Vice President for Research and Development at Mondo Widget Corp. (New Paltz, NY), said ….” That would be followed all too often by other background information before the key point of the story would be raised. As Buttry suggests, “If you start a story with attribution, consider whether the person speaking is more important to the reader than what he or she is saying.”

In theory, attribution is easier and more useful online because you can link readers to the source. In practice, though, the trade press doesn’t link nearly enough. They should do better. As Buttry argues,

Linking is an essential part of attribution in online journalism. Linking lets people see the full context of the information you are citing. Even when readers don’t click links, the fact that you are linking tells them that you are backing up what you have written, that you are attributing and showing your sources.

If you want to see some examples of this shortcoming, you only need to read through a few stories from the leading publication for the magazine industry, Folio:. In an article entitled “Editors Share Best Practices for Twitter,” for instance, you might expect at least a link to each of the Twitter pages for the four editors profiled, if not also links to their magazines. But there’s not a single link in the story.

In the new-media era of journalism, the arguably most important ethical principle is transparency. As Steve Buttry reminds us, attribution and linking are essential tools for achieving it.

Saving Your Content from Web Clutter

Until very recently, Safari, Apple’s Web browser, has for me always come in a distant second to Firefox. But with the latest update to Safari, that may change.  A new feature in Safari 5.0, Reader, is a compelling tool for reducing an article on the Web to its essence: the words.

That such a tool is necessary underscores just how unfriendly to readers most Web sites have become. Why is it that online publications make it so hard to read the articles that are their main reason for existence?

Granted, a certain amount of clutter is inevitable. Without devices like logos, in-line links, and navigational aids, the Web isn’t the Web. (Witness the debate Nicholas Carr set off when, weary of those “little textual gnats buzzing around your head,” he modestly proposed trading inline links for footnoted ones.)

But as sites start to accrete banner and text ads, e-book downloads, affiliation badges, boxes highlighting related and popular articles, and far too much more, the story gets increasingly hard to find, and difficult to read when you do find it.

Take, for example, a recent article on, “The Fifth Wave of Computing” by Trevor Butterworth. If you set out to make an article unreadable, you couldn’t do much better than this.

Click to enlarge

It doesn’t get better as you go further down the page, either (especially considering that when you get to the bottom, you have to click a “next” link to read the remainder of the story).

Screen capture of Forbes article

To  our rescue comes Safari’s Reader.

Screen capture of Forbes page using Safari Reader

Instead of heaps of distracting clutter, we get nothing but the essential article content, and all in one page—no page jumps to deal with.

Safari’s Reader is not perfect. It may leave off by-lines or author photos, as in the above example, or struggle to place images correctly. That’s one reason why, if you value your Web content and hope for meaningful engagement with site visitors, it’s in your interest to reduce clutter to a minimum. Your goal should be to design your site for real readers, not Safari’s.

Nerd-note: Safari’s Reader has its roots in a browser bookmarklet called Readability, which works in almost all browsers.  Though it produces equally readable text, it doesn’t integrate into the browsing experience as smoothly as Reader. In addition, it seems not to load all the pages in a multipage article, as Reader does.

What B2B Can Learn from Jeff Jarvis, Part 2

The Transformative Power of Links

What Would Google Do? By Jeff Jarvis. HarperBusiness, 2009.

When Jarvis writes in an early chapter of WWGD, “the link changes every business and institution,” it may sound a bit portentous.  But he has it exactly right.

The first time I encountered a hyperlinked Web page, back in the early 1990’s, I thought it was just a lame version of Gopher–a now largely forgotten way of finding various documents around the Internet. What I didn’t get at first was that the innovation was not in the links themselves, but the enormously powerful relationship of those links to the document in which they are embedded. The link, the ability to take readers directly to other sources of information, has revolutionized publishing and journalism. No longer is a document by necessity a hermetically sealed, constraining vessel. And no longer do you need to provide all the background details and related information yourself. Links are liberating for journalists and publishers alike.

Unfortunately, too few people in B2B seem to realize this yet in their practice. The desire to control the reader’s experience, to keep them on our site, has kept us from fully exploiting the power of links. Hence Jarvis’s admonition to “do what you do best and link to the rest.” If a publication is to stand out, he says, “it needs to create stories with unique value.” To do that, it must concentrate its resources where they matter most, and “send readers to others for the rest.”

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