Active hyperlinking improves chance of sustainability for newspapers, new research shows

It may be hard to believe that there are still news organizations out there that don’t hyperlink actively and externally. (How many years have we been explaining this now?) But, there are.

Perhaps this will help: New research published this week by a Rutgers professor shows that newspapers that actively hyperlink to themselves and other websites are more likely to survive than those that don’t.

The study was published in Communication Research and conducted by Matthew Weber, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, and Peter Monge, a professor at University of Southern California. It showed that news ecosystems with outlets that link to each other a lot see a greater amount of digital traffic.

The research study, titled “Industries in Turmoil: Driving Transformation During Periods of Disruption,” looked at how 487 U.S. newspapers adopted hyperlinking as they transitioned from being print-based outlets to multimedia organizations over an 11-year period from 1997 to 2007.

“The results show that traditional newspapers that aggressively adopted hyperlinking practices had a decreased likelihood of failure in the long run,” Weber and Monge wrote.

In other words, those organizations that were early adopters of new digital tools were quicker to change their organizational strategies to adapt to the new world around them, and were thus less likely to fail.

“These findings suggest that individual organizations that responded early to changes in technology were able to impact long-term failure rates,” Weber and Monge wrote.

It’s important to note that other studies have also looked at this question and come to similar conclusions. Research in 2011 and 2012 analyzed Chicago’s local news ecosystem and found that linking between sites was a key driver of traffic and a cornerstone practice for the smaller organizations in the ecosystem.

Larger, legacy sites are less likely to link out than digital-natives. In part, that’s because there are clearly benefits to smaller sites from linking to bigger outlets that are covering something they might not have the resources to cover, but that its readers care about.

Matt Skoufalos, who runs the digital news site NJ Pen in South Jersey, said he has found that he’s had to establish personal relationships with folks at other news organizations in order to get them to link to his work. He’s also contacted other reporters who would “liberally borrow” from his work without citing it or linking out. Often, he finds that larger, legacy news outlets are less likely to hyperlink externally than smaller ones.

“The question of legitimacy or perceived legitimacy is what seems to drive the ethics behind the treatment of smaller organizations by folks at larger ones,” Skoufalos said.

He actively links out from his website, but tries to ensure he only cites or links to work by authors he feels have done a good job covering the material, because he’s in essence validating that person’s work by linking to them.

“To news organizations that don’t have an enlightened approach to hyperlinking, I simply ask whether they are doing the best work they can in fulfilling their covenant with their audience by producing and creating original content and participating in a network of the same,” Skoufalos said.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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