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Why linking matters: A
Juliette De Maeyer
Université de Montréal, Canada
Avery E Holton
The University of Utah, USA
Journalists have incorporated hyperlinks (i.e. linking) into their professional practice
since the early stages of digital news expansion. Media scholars and professionals have
continually championed their use, yet little is known about the perceptions and uses
of links in journalism practice on a broad journalistic scale. Drawing on an analysis of
metajournalistic discourses, this study finds that links in news resonate with different
aspects of newsmaking: the transparency of news production processes, the user
experience, and the economic context. While journalists and other news media experts
may indeed see value in linking, that optimism is tempered by levels of caution and
worry, suggesting a need for media scholars, journalists, and news organization to re-
evaluate the deployment of links within the news process.
Digital journalism, hyperlinks, linking, metajournalistic discourse analysis
Journalism as a profession has been in a period of digital evolution for more than a decade,
undergoing changes necessitated, if not forced, by rapidly changing technological innova-
tions. Social media alone have required journalists to become closer with audiences that
Juliette De Maeyer, Department of Communication, Université de Montréal, P.O. Box 6128, Downtown
Station, Montréal, QC H3C 3J7, Canada.
JOU0010.1177/1464884915579330JournalismDe Maeyer and Holton
now expect to be included in conversations about the news as well as its construction
(Lewis, 2012; Mitchell, 2014). In order to adapt to transforming audience needs, journalists
have had to rethink the traditional tenets that have driven their profession for so long, giv-
ing more consideration to unique ways of transmitting the news and connecting more con-
textually and relationally with their audiences (Broersma and Graham, 2013; Lasorsa et al.,
2012; Molyneux, 2013).
For most of the last two decades, media scholars have championed the use of hyper-
links (i.e. links) as a means to keep pace with some of those evolutionary expectations.
Links are fundamental connective tools that can bring together news stories with other
pages and documents on the web providing layers of contextualization to content. Despite
their embeddedness within journalism practice, the exact reasons behind their use have
been relatively unexplored. Some media studies have probed the ways in which journal-
ists employ links, describing their incorporation into the news process in terms of align-
ments or breaks with journalistic normalization (Coddington, 2014; Larsson, 2013).
Notably fewer have given attention to what has driven their use and how they are per-
ceived on a broader level by those who work them into their practice. That is to say, a
wider breadth of journalism professionals and experts has not been included in the analy-
sis of the motivations for, and functions of, linking in journalism.
By analyzing metajournalistic discourses, this study provides extensive insights into
how linking has been perceived among professional journalists, media scholars, and
other journalism experts since its inception into journalism practice. The findings indi-
cate that while links have been championed as means to add context, transparency, and
connectivity to the news, such optimism is tempered with a level of caution within meta-
journalistic discourses. While links have been increasingly incorporated into journalism
practice in a number of ways beneficial to journalists and their audiences, there remains
a notable voice of caution surrounding their use.
Evolving journalistic practices and the hyperlink
Journalism as a profession is in the midst of a paradigmatic transformation, shifting from
the notion of journalists as news authorities distributing information to the masses to one
where the authority of journalists depends on their ability to convey connectivity and
new forms of trust to a public that is increasingly encroaching on the news process
(Bogaerts and Carpentier, 2013; McNair, 2013). These and other normative shifts have
occurred over a fairly short period of time, beginning with the widespread digital dis-
semination of the news that began near the turn of the century and speeding up with the
arrival of social media platforms shortly thereafter. Media scholars contend that news
organizations should develop consequential connections with their audiences within
these spaces, not only by adjusting their long-held professional norms, but also by creat-
ing reciprocal environments that can encourage enduring communities of news consum-
ers (Lewis et al., 2014).
In many cases, especially those involving communities built around news, content
comes in the form of links, which provide individuals with opportunities to share and
De Maeyer and Holton 3
contextualize their individual interests within spaces public and private (De Maeyer,
2013; Hsu and Park, 2011). At least one study has suggested that social network site
(SNS) users seek and share information within single messages, frequently providing
links to further explicate their questions or to provide answers (Holton et al., 2014). This
suggests that the exchange of links is part of a reciprocal function of SNSs, serving to
help build up the kind of communities media scholars have argued provide more layered
participation between journalists and news consumers (Lewis et al., 2014).
Links as matters of concern: An examination of metajournalistic discourses
As Steensen (2011) argued, the ability to include links within news coverage represents
one of the most powerful functions of digital journalism. Not only can they improve the
context of news narratives and provide relatively new levels of transparency, they can
indicate where journalists stand on particular issues by revealing which sources they tend
to align with and draw from (Coddington, 2012, 2014). In broader terms, links can serve
as indicators of developing journalistic norms and practices or represent a form of nor-
malization wherein journalists graft existing norms and values onto new technologies
(Lasorsa et al., 2012). A fuller understanding of what drives linking practices and how
they are perceived within the journalistic process can help media scholars and practition-
ers realize their present functions and future potentials while also revealing how journal-
istic practices are actualized in digital spaces.
Links have been studied by journalism scholars as objects embedded within the prod-
uct and profession of journalism. Early studies were largely descriptive, viewing online
news as a ‘utopian’ environment for journalism (Domingo, 2006) wherein the volume of
links within news stories indicated the level of success of news organizations to transi-
tion into digital environments. These studies tended to conclude that news websites were
not using enough links (Kenney et al., 2000; O’Sullivan, 2005; Paulussen, 2004; Tankard
and Ban, 1998) and that when they did, they did not provide nearly enough external links
pointing to other content sources (Dimitrova et al., 2003; Dimitrova and Neznanski,
2006; Engebretsen, 2006; Himelboim, 2010; Kenney et al., 2000; Pitts, 2003; Sjøvaag
et al., 2012; Tremayne, 2005). Media scholars thusly interpreted this lack of links as a
failure of news organizations to embrace the innovative formats of the web, arguing that
links, both internal and external, could provide a better news experience for audiences.
Yet, the majority of these studies did not explore why linking mattered to news creators
or consumers, positing in sweeping generalities that as links became part of web-native
formats, they should be part of online news.
More recent scholarship has taken a less descriptive approach, investigating the pro-
duction factors that shape the linking practices of news creators, including professional
and non-professional journalists (Coddington, 2012, 2014; Larsson, 2013; Weber, 2012).
Such research has shed light on why these individuals and the organizations they serve
use links and what their linking habits might say about the evolving journalistic process.
Ryfe et al. (2012), for instance, have shown that linking practices reflect traditional
source hierarchy (with traditional news sites attracting the most links within the ecosys-
tem they studied) and commercial concerns. As these studies advance current knowledge
about the practice of linking and its effect on an evolving news process, there is a need
to address the intermediary step between the approach that quantifies how many links
news sites produce and the approach that explains what in the production context explains
linking practices. This study aims at addressing that gap by examining the various func-
tions that links can and do have for journalists.
This study examines interpretations of linking in journalism by analyzing metajour-
nalistic discourses, which Carlson (2014b: 2) has described as ‘public utterances about
journalism’ that engage in discussion ‘defining appropriate – as well as inappropriate –
journalistic norms and practices’. Metajournalistic discourses are vehicles by which
journalistic actors routinely generate shared meaning about journalism, hence fostering
an ‘interpretive community’ (Zelizer, 1993). These discourses provide ‘insight into jour-
nalists’ ongoing attempts to define their own profession and genre against the backdrop
of journalism’s ever-changing material context’ (Hampton, 2012: 327). An approach
focused on metajournalistic discourses suggests that ‘the ways of doing journalism are
inseparable from ways of imagining journalism’ and that discourses about journalism
impact how it is understood and practiced (Carlson, 2014b: 5). This is not to say that
discourse strictly determines practice, but rather that metajournalistic discourses can
shape a repertoire of possible performances.
The present study follows the approach suggested by Cooren et al. (2012), who
drew from Latour (1996) in their proposal to avoid reducing the world to a dichoto-
mous opposition between materiality and discourse (Cooren et al., 2012: 296) and to
instead account for the ‘plenum of agencies’ that constitute the world (Cooren, 2006).
They consequently urge scholars to pay attention to what people are doing, but also to
‘what leads them to do what they are doing, that is, what animates them’. In a Latourian
fashion, they emphasize the importance of ‘matters of concern’, that is, preoccupa-
tions, concerns, worries that animate people. We argue that metajournalistic discourses
precisely constitute a manifestation of such matters of concern. This study analyzes
metajournalistic discourses produced by a wide breadth of journalism professionals
and experts in order to describe the motivations for, and functions of, linking in
Metajournalistic discourses can be found in increasingly dispersed venues, including
institutionalized publications such as decade-old journalism reviews, news and opin-
ion columns, news analysis programs, and on various Internet-based outlets ranging
from professional news organizations to individual blogs and Twitter feeds (Carlson,
2014b; Haas, 2006). In order to take the diverse nature of discourses into account, we
gathered metajournalistic documents according to a ‘serendipitous’ snowball method
designed to take advantage of the material intertextuality embodied by networks of
hyperlinks (De Maeyer and Le Cam, 2014). The data collection consisted of two steps.
In order to identify locations where metajournalistic discourses thrive, a purposive
sampling of journalism reviews
first served as ‘windows into the field’ of journalism
((Powers, 2012; Weinhold, 2010). These reviews were systematically explored with
search queries in order to find documents that address the question of linking in the
Starting from these documents, we next systematically explored their explicit,
De Maeyer and Holton 5
intertextual connections via the hyperlinks that they contained in order to progres-
sively gather more relevant documents until saturation was reached and no new docu-
ments could be discovered (De Maeyer and Le Cam, 2014). As such, this research
embraced the principles of the ‘cartography of controversies’ by choosing a set of ‘first
observation lenses’ and then, from node to node, multiplying the vantage points in
order to reveal ‘how dispersed discourses are woven into articulated literatures’
(Venturini, 2010: 266).
The method may not avoid sampling bias due to the starting points that were chosen
(which remained, to some extent, central), but the final dataset nevertheless successfully
multiplied the points of view and presents substantially diverse discourses. By manually
and systematically navigating through the hypertextual references, we collected and ana-
lyzed 256 documents from 1997 to 2013. Journalism reviews that were used as starting
points remained relatively central in the final dataset (about a third of the documents),
notably because they were the most prolific. The overall dataset was diversified: docu-
ments came from 81 different publications and 141 authors. Publications included, but
were not limited to, journalism reviews, scholarly works, columns, blogs, and news arti-
cles. Authors included professional journalists and editors, former journalists, journalism
educators, bloggers, media scholars, and other media experts (with those roles often
overlapping or shifting over time). As the chosen starting points were US-based outlets,
the resulting set of discourses remained US-centric even though about 40 texts from the
United Kingdom were discovered. The present analysis therefore reflects a limited hori-
zon, that of the discourses and the writers that could be discovered with the serendipitous
method described above.
After collecting the sample, we conducted a thematic analysis in which we iteratively
coded the documents by identifying recurring themes and patterns (Ayres, 2008; Lapadat,
2010). An initial set of themes was derived from previous research in which journalism
educators identified possible functions of linking: fostering interactivity, transparency,
credibility, and diversity (De Maeyer, 2012). Those broad themes were refined itera-
tively and new themes emerged inductively, by ‘constantly comparing data against codes
and categories’ (Lapadat, 2010). The coding was carried out with TamsAnalyzer, a com-
puter-assisted qualitative analysis software.
The thematic analysis revealed a variety of interpretations of linking in journalism.
Metajournalistic discourses often address issue of practices and norms, discussing what
is appropriate or not (Carlson, 2014b), so it is not surprising that a polarization between
the ‘good’ link and the ‘bad’ link emerged in our analysis. Positive and negative assess-
ments were equally important in the dataset, with roughly the same number of texts
presenting occurrences of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ links. We chose to follow that dichotomy to
account for the various ways in which links and linking were characterized. The follow-
ing sections account for the many raisons d’être of the link and also highlight fundamen-
tal contradictions. More importantly, a close inspection of these themes allows for the
unpacking of arguments that seem obvious but actually play out at various stages of the
The ‘good’ link
The ways in which links are said to enhance the news content and journalism practice are
multiple, as metajournalistic discourses highlight several instances of the ‘good’ link. These
included links used to increase transparency by showing sources and by displaying usually
hidden writing processes, links used to customize the reading experience by providing more
context to those who need it, links used to guide readers and offer them more autonomy, and
links used as humorous cues targeted at a knowing audience. These different functions not
only co-exist – proving that links are more complex than a technological layer that needs to
be embraced – they also sometimes veil different lines of reasoning. The following sections
explore the variety of arguments that are mobilized in the discourses we analyzed.
Links that show sources (credibility and credit). One of the prominent discourses associated
with the ‘good’ link was that of the ability to show sources. Links are useful for journal-
ists, as our sample pointed out, because they allow them to directly point to the original
material that they used to build their story. But there are two underlying purposes to this
argument. On the one hand, links to sources produce credibility. Conversely, links to
sources ensure credit is given where credit is due. These are two sides of the same coin,
but considering them separately allows for an examination of the different journalistic
values and practices that are involved when it comes to the relationship between journal-
ists and their sources.
Links help journalists to ensure credibility when they point to original material such
as documents, data, and other primary sources. In this case, links are used as a demon-
stration of facticity:
Why not give the reader, if he or she wants to, the opportunity to see the sources, or a source,
when it’s available? It helps bulletproof the column, because if they say ‘He must be making
that up’, they can look and see – here’s the source, take a look and judge it for yourself …
(Frank Rich, New York Times columnist, quoted in Delaney, 2008)
Links to sources not only concern primary sources and raw documents, they also
involve an acknowledgment of who published news or information first. In this case, the
motive behind linking is the reinforcement of the attribution of original sources. For
instance, in the 2011 adjustment of the Associated Press’ attribution policy, it is noted,
News organizations that break big stories will soon get a little more credit […] from The
Associated Press. Beginning Aug. 1, whenever the AP picks up a local story from a member for
rewriting and distribution, the text of AP’s story will include a link back to the original report.
In this case, there is no original document or data in the target of the link; the sole pur-
pose of the link is to highlight who is the original producer of the news. Journalism
professor and entrepreneur Jeff Jarvis puts it as follows: ‘The link ethic demands prov-
enance’ [Jarvis 2010]. Provenance and primary sources might require different links, but
both ideas exist – and are sometimes conflated – in the injunction to use links to show
De Maeyer and Holton 7
Both imply their own obstacles. In the case of links that point to primary sources,
some sources are simply impossible to link to. ‘Sometimes it’s unlinkable material’
[Delaney 2008] such as documents that do not exist online or exist behind security or
paywalls and facts that have been witnessed yet do not have a digital existence. In the
case of attribution links, there is a reluctance to openly acknowledge direct borrowing
(that some defendants of digital culture deem an old-fashioned stance [Ingram 2012,
Jarvis 2008] and the difficulty to identify the true original source in the abundance of
aggregation pieces. Some journalists and media professionals argue that links should be
used to avoid that kind of situation, that is, rewriting what has already been published
elsewhere. Embracing Jeff Jarvis’ motto – ‘Cover what you do best and link to the rest’
[Jarvis 2007] – they argue that replicating news items is a loss of time and that journalists
should focus on adding value [Salmon 2010].
Links that show the writer’s ethos. Links to sources are also presented as a way to provide
a peek behind the scenes. As such, they say something about journalists and the news
processes they work within. By showing what journalists are reading, for example, links
are a direct gateway ‘inside the heads’ of journalists [Karp 2008c]. They illustrate the
‘implicit context’ of an article by unveiling a writer’s ethos:
The links you put into a piece of writing tell a story (or, if you will, a meta-story) about you and
what you’ve written. They say things like: What sort of company does this writer keep? Who
does she read? What kind of stuff do her links point to […] Links, in other words, transmit
meaning, but they also communicate mindset and style. [Rosenberg 2011a]
Metajournalistic discourses hence argue that links reflect a writer’s voice and per-
sonal style [Garber 2011a] as well as personal news judgment [Karp 2008c]. Mathew
Ingram explicitly relates this function of linking to transparency, in line with the argu-
ment that transparency is the new objectivity:
Links also make it easier for readers to understand a writer’s perspective, and thus are an
important tool in disclosing bias (in an eloquent discussion of how transparency is the new
objectivity, author David Weinberger said that objectivity was something ‘you rely on when
your medium can’t do links’). [Ingram 2010]
The ways in which links might provide more transparency hence operate at distinct lev-
els: linking divulges the relation between a journalist and source material, the relation
between different news organizations that potentially lead to replication and aggregation,
and the identity of writers themselves.
Paradoxical virtue: concision and depth, autonomy and guidance. The ‘good’ link also fulfills
another, seemingly paradoxical function: it allows news items to be both more concise
and broader. By placing links to relevant background information, journalists do not
need to restate the full context of a news story. Instead, they are able to focus on new
pieces of information. This newly gained focus is not at the expense of rich, in-depth
reporting as all the relevant elements are still available to the reader behind the links.
This virtue is also presented as a way of empowering readers, who can judge if they need
additional information or not. Those who want to explore a story more deeply can choose
to click on links [McLellan 2009], but ‘if they already know the background on the infor-
mation, they can simply skip over that link and keep reading the story’ [Lyon 2012].
With links to contextual information, the news becomes more customized, allowing
readers to choose what fits their informational needs. As such, another virtue of the
‘good’ link highlighted by the metajournalistic discourses is that it provides more auton-
omy to readers. By fully controlling how they browse news and navigate through links,
readers may have more freedom to enjoy the benefits of interactive media – in represen-
tations that overstate the linearity of offline media and underestimate news reader’s
autonomy in general: ‘[Links help] to change the way we experience the news from an
act determined by the newsroom (reading the New York Post from cover to cover every
morning) to an act that I can basically control on my own’ [Luzer 2008].
Again, the advantage of linking (increased autonomy, freedom of choice) goes hand in
hand with a seemingly paradoxical quality: the idea that links exist to guide readers, to show
them the way, and to lead them down more productive paths. The representations of readers
conveyed by the discourses we analyzed are two-sided: readers that want more autonomy
and readers that need to be guided. The latter representation is grounded in the well-known
argument of ‘information overload’: there is too much information [Luzer 2008] flowing
from too many channels and journalists’ roles – in line with the notion of gatekeeping – are
to point news consumers to relevant pieces of information by using links to ‘guid[e] audi-
ences to the best of the internet’ [BBC editor Steve Herrmann, quoted in Stray 2010a].
The will to guide readers in the vastness of the web was particularly strong in a genre
that now seems somewhat old-fashioned: that of the directory, that is, lists of links that
point to resources deemed interesting by a news organization. The BBC had a ‘Webguide’,
the New York Times the ‘Cyber Times Navigator’. When they were created in the late-
1990s and early 2000s, these pages were framed as exhaustive channels that could help
readers find their bearings in the whole world wide web (the Navigator’s headline reads:
‘Searching the net? Here is a place to start’ [Meslin 2002]. Both still exist, if discreetly,
but they have been divided in thematic sections and no longer play the exhaustive role of
stronger, more popular search engines such as Google.
Links that aid the ‘link economy’. So far, the benefits of the ‘good link’ have mostly con-
cerned readers, with links enhancing the news consuming experience. But there is an
additional way in which linking is said to be positive within metajournalistic discourses:
it could produce economic value for the news organization. This is at the core of what has
been labeled the ‘link economy theory’ [Hemery 2011], which posits that links can be
monetized. In a world of information abundance, the argument goes, the key issue for
news organizations is the diffusion of content as much as (or even more than) content
production. Links to news sites could drive audiences, consequently allowing news
organizations to collect page views that can be sold to advertisers. The idea of the ‘link
economy’ is notably defended by Jeff Jarvis who discursively disconnects the value of
the link from the value of the content that is linked to:
Let’s say that the real value in this equation is not content and information – both of which are
now quickly commodified – but links, which are the new currency of media. Links can be
De Maeyer and Holton 9
exploited and monetized; get links and you can grab audience and show ads and make money.
Content is becoming a cost burden, what you have to have to get the links, but in and of itself,
content can’t draw value without an audience, without links. [Jarvis 2008]
For news organizations, there is an obvious economic interest in gathering as many
inbound links as possible. But the argument of the ‘link economy’ also applies to
outbound links, in a seemingly counterintuitive reasoning: the more external links a
site produces, the more value it creates. Such rhetoric mostly relies on analogies with
highly successful websites that produce many links and attract high amount of traffic.
If sites such as the Drudge Report [Karp 2008b] or even Google [Buttry 2008] attract
so many users simply by offering links, the same logic must be valid for news
Google has become synonymous with innovation and lucrative business success in the web
age. And it just drives newspaper executives nuts because Google doesn’t provide actual
content. It just provides links. Are you starting to understand? Links have value – value of
Googlenormous proportions. [Buttry 2008]
Those who propose that rationale highlight two underlying principles. On one hand,
links are a valuable service to readers who tend to come back to the site that proposes
relevant links [Glaser 2003]. On the other, external links foster reciprocity and hence
have positive indirect repercussions: this argument is meant to encourage links between
news sites, arguing that if journalists collectively seek to highlight news content by link-
ing to it, it would enhance the visibility and diffusion of news overall [Karp 2008a]. In
other words, ‘you give what you get in online media’ [Gahran 2006].
Besides constituting a source of traffic – be it direct or indirect through the hope of
reciprocal linking – there is another way in which links allow news organizations to
thrive on the ‘link economy’: the role they play in Search Engine Optimization (SEO). If
search engines use links to rank results, then news organization should take advantage of
that to promote their own content. This principle results in calls to emphasize internal
links, as highlighted by this excerpt from a 2011 Washington Post memo:
from a strategic perspective, links are key to expanding our audience. Google was built around
academic citation: The content that gets the most links from trusted sources gets the highest
spot in search results. The Washington Post is a very trusted source with a very high Google
ranking. By not linking other Washington Post stories to your own, you’re denying yourself a
lot of Google-driven audience. [Washington Post memo, quoted in Rothstein 2011]
The humorous link: Easter eggs and knowing readers. Finally, links sometimes do not
have any function other than sheer enjoyment – as reported by Frank Rich, a New York
Times columnist, who said, ‘Sometimes we have fun with the links’ [quoted in Dela-
ney 2008]. These links are winks from the authors, directed to the knowing reader.
They are, according to one article, ‘like the Easter eggs hidden in DVDs and video
games, are there just for the amusement of writer and audience alike. They defy too
much explanation and analysis, as their purpose is simply to provide a little humor’
The playfulness of hypertext sometimes borders on textual experimentation, espe-
cially in the early days of online news. This is, for instance, how blogger Scott Rosenberg
describes the peculiar linking style of Suck.com, a late-1990s online-only news outlet:
Suck’s best hook all along – its most original contribution to Web culture – has been the style of
hypertext link it pioneered. Suck’s writers use links not as informational resources or aids to site
navigation but as a rhetorical device, a kind of sub textual shorthand. A link from a Suck.com
article, far from illustrating a point, more often than not undercuts it. A Suck link’s highlight is
often a warning: Irony Ahead – do not take these words at face value. [Rosenberg 1997]
The ‘bad’ link
All of these virtues and their various implications should not obscure the fact that meta-
journalistic discourses do not unanimously embrace the link as a positive tool. Several
instances of the ‘bad’ link were also present in the documents we analyzed, including
circumstances in which linking was presented as harmful or as promoting interests that
provoke tension with the positive values presented above.
Links that distract readers. There are two ways in which links are framed as a potential
nuisance that distract readers: they create a risk for readers to get lost in hypertextual
mazes [Garber 2011b, Luzer 2008], and their visual presence also causes cognitive over-
load, affecting readers’ concentration [Carr 2010, Herrmann 2010, Chittum 2010].
The first claim concurs with an argument well discussed by hypertext theorist, the
‘lost in hyperspace problem’ (Theng and Thimbleby, 1998). When endlessly clicking on
links, readers may feel disoriented and lose their sense of purpose. Potentially endless
navigation paths equate to black holes:
The flip side of the web’s status as the greatest repository of information the world has ever
known is that its information can easily form a kind of black hole when it comes to user
attention. Hyperlinks allow us – hey, encourage us – hey, almost force us – to flit about from
site to site across the vast expanse of the web, indulging our curiosity at the cost of nothing
more than a click and a bit of time. [Garber 2011b]
The negative impact of links does not even require readers to click on them, as simply
looking at links could already create harmful distraction. Essayist Nicholas Carr has
notably made this argument. In his 2011 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing
to Our Brains, and in follow-up blog posts, Carr sparks the debate: what if in-text links
had negative consequences on our ability to concentrate on a text?
[Links are] tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t
click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to
decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your
brain, but it’s there and it matters. [Carr 2010]
Links that cause traffic loss. The idea that links create a risk of sending readers away, and
consequently represent a direct traffic loss for a news organization, is also among the
negative connotations found in the discourses we analyzed:
De Maeyer and Holton 11
The reasons I’ve usually heard for not linking, or for only linking to internal pages, is that the
journal’s site ‘needs’ to be ‘sticky’, to ‘drive traffic’ past ads, and to maximize the time spent
by readers on the site. [Searls 2011]
But this argument is allusive. Those who mention it immediately distance themselves
from it, by saying that it is an old-fashioned point of view, or something that news organ-
izations used to do. Not wanting to send readers away is an ‘old bromide’ [Delaney
2008], ‘a very old-fashioned view’ [Smith 2010].
Links that are produced by robots. Who or what, then, should create the links in news
reports? This question is centered around the opposition between humans and robots, as
another embodiment of the ‘bad’ link is pointed out: the automatic link, created by an
algorithm. These links are seen as a nuisance: ‘When I read Times stories I tend to ignore
the links because I’ve learned that most of them will be generic – machine-generated
rather than hand-crafted’ [Rosenberg 2011b]. The fact that links are produced by ‘face-
less algorithms’ [Karp 2010] is not necessarily presented as bad per se, and sometimes
better than no links at all [Belam 2010]. But human intervention is said to outperform
machines and produce more relevant, valuable links [Stray 2010b]:
Fully automated sites like Google News and, until recently, Techmeme, have shown that
algorithms can do much of the work – and you don’t need to pay health insurance for computers.
But at least for now, edited aggregators still seem more valuable. [Seward 2008]
The word ‘curation’ appears to refer to the artful selection of relevant links, as opposed
to large-scale, soulless ‘aggregation’. Even when machines can help to perform some
tasks, the journalist should maintain editorial control [Salmon 2011, Hemery 2011]: ‘The
people best positioned to provide links are those who create content in our newsroom’
Links that are paid for. Ultimately, the link that is unanimously condemned is the link that
has been paid for – and even more so if the transaction is hidden. The attempt at ‘bribing’
bloggers to clandestinely place links is vigorously denounced as ‘shady marketing
schemes’ [Nolan 2011] and presented as obviously wrong, as exemplified by this state-
ment by Henry Blodget (CEO of Business Insider, a news site where such practices
allegedly took place):
We don’t have an explicit policy against it (writers accepting bribes in exchange of links), but
we also don’t have explicit policies against throwing chairs through windows, spray-painting
walls, or any of a thousand other things that common sense would tell you not to do. Obviously,
we do link to advertiser sites occasionally, but the money goes to the company, not specific
editors. And the relationship is disclosed. [Henry Blodget, quoted in Nolan 2011]
Even when the transaction happens to be controlled by the news organization and
transparently disclosed, ads ‘disguised as links’ seem to be negatively received [Roderick
2010]. Corrupted links do not necessarily need to be the subject of a monetary transac-
tion, and the blame is extended to links that suggests conflict of interests [Brisbane 2011)
or an understanding between two sites that does not purely reflects journalistic interest
[Beato 2009]. Moreover, embracing the ‘link economy’ is sometimes seen as unethical:
those who solely produce links to reinforce their position in search engine rankings or
deprive others from ‘Googlejuice’ are harshly criticized [Belam 2008, O’Donovan 2008,
Altoft 2008, Bradshaw 2008, Ingram 2012]. There seems to be a balance to strike
between journalistic and commercial interests, but how exactly to achieve the perfect
equilibrium is unclear.
Collectively, these issues shape how links come to exist as matters of concern in meta-
journalistic discourses. We saw three overarching themes in the metajournalistic dis-
courses that relate linking to different aspects of newsmaking. These included (1) the
news production processes, (2) the user experience, and (3) the economic circumstances
in which the news is produced. First, the concern for credibility, credit, and the writer’s
ethos indicates that links can function as transparency devices. In this respect, links are
traces of the news production processes that can become visible in the news text. Second,
the tensions between concision and depth, autonomy and guidance, as well as the humor-
ous or distractive potential of links reveal a function of links that is more related to recep-
tion. When elaborating on these themes, the metajournalistic discourses are preoccupied
with what the readers experience (with potentially positive or negative impacts). A third
overarching theme also binds positive and negative expectations with the considerations
on the link economy and the cautiousness related to traffic loss, automated links, and
bribery. Here, metajournalistic discourses highlight pragmatic concerns and focus on the
concrete economic context of newsmaking.
It should be noted that the themes delineated above emerged repeatedly over time.
Even if the examples and concrete situations on which they drew varied with the evolu-
tion of online news, the various virtues and pitfalls of linking were mobilized throughout
the discourses. Contrary to the ‘digital utopian’ (Domingo, 2006) view that casts linking
as yet another tool that news sites need to use simply because they are part of the techno-
logical arsenal, the results indicate a certain level of complexity about the functionality
of links in the news process. Adding a link potentially reveals the news production pro-
cess, affects the way readers experience the news, and implies broader economic issues.
This suggests a reconsideration not only of the frequency in which links are used in the
news process, but also how they are used.
This is especially critical given the current evolution of news consumption, which
increasingly happens in digital and social media spaces and through mobile technology
(Caumont, 2013; Kohut, 2013). The results here indicate themes that have occurred since
the popularization of links in the news process. With the evolution of Twitter, Facebook,
and other SNSs into ‘ambient’ sources of news that frequently rely on the rapid exchange
of information, including links, journalists have had to rethink the functional and critical
role links now play (Hermida, 2014). Media scholars have illustrated the pivotal role of
links employed through social media, noting they aid in source transparency and verifi-
cation, open opportunities for deeper connections with news consumers, and allow for
individual and organizational branding (Broersma and Graham, 2013; Bruns, 2012;
De Maeyer and Holton 13
Lewis et al., 2014; Molyneux, 2013). Yet, as this study showed, such changes may not
always be perceived as positive.
While the value of content embedded with links has been demonstrated by a number
of studies that have indicated links help enhance audience knowledge, increase social
capital, and enhance online network connectivity (Holton et al., 2014; Hsu and Park,
2011), their value is not considered without peril in metajournalistic discourses. These
discourses recognize the potential for ‘good’ links to enhance journalistic practices in
ways that meet current audience expectations of richer context and fuller transparency,
but they alternatively remain guarded about the current and potential negative impacts
‘bad’ links may have on journalism as a profession, on news consumers, and on the rela-
tionship between the two. This suggests that links may not be so much a technological
layer atop of news content, but rather that links are objects that journalists may use at
their own discretion based on their intentions, their imagined audience, and the editorial
policy of a news organization. The diversity of issues at stake might therefore suggest
why examinations of news sites (Kenney et al., 2000; O’Sullivan, 2005; Paulussen,
2004; Tankard and Ban, 1998) found that they produce so few links. Adding a link is not
a mere technical gesture, it is a complex journalistic practice that may require pondering
and self-reflexivity from news creators that do not necessarily fit with the highly routi-
nized context in which many journalists work. A related study (De Maeyer, 2013) that
investigated actual newsroom practices in relation with these matters of concern has
shown that journalists only spend a minute fraction of their time on linking.
Clearly the function of links is a question that should be put more pointedly to today’s
news creators and news organizations. They are, after all, the ones who determine the
appropriateness of linking within the news process. This study does not serve as an indi-
cator of their perspectives alone, but rather has cast a wide net as a means to begin
reflecting on how links and linking are considered by professional journalists, scholars,
and media experts. Our unpacking of metajournalistic discourses can aid in the explora-
tion of relatively unexplored areas of journalistic practice, providing indicators of how
evolving practices are viewed within the holistic process of journalism (Carlson, 2014a).
This article drew on a vision of action and discourse that is not dichotomic and argued
that metajournalistic discourses constitute a manifestation of the various ‘matters of con-
cern’ of journalism. By studying how metajournalistic discourses discussed the notion of
linking, we have described specific ways of imagining journalism which are inseparable
of the ways of doing journalism. In this also resides the most prominent limitation of this
article: it does not say much about actual journalistic practices; describing instead a pos-
sible repertoire of action that can animate journalists when they link. Further research
can therefore show how the different themes that we have highlighted play out in specific
journalistic practices (see for example De Maeyer, 2013). Another fruitful avenue to be
explored by further research could focus on the origins of the metajournalistic discourses
and their circulation. The present research has considered those discourses globally by
adopting a methodological standpoint that consists in exhausting the diversity of dis-
courses about links. Future research can deepen our understanding of metajournalistic
discourses and their role in journalism as a whole by investigating the identity of the
authors of the metajournalistic discourses, their distinct social location as well as the
centrality of some of these actors and the circulation of discourses (among actors, across
cultures or national contexts).
At a time when the profitability and growth of news organizations across the world is
beginning to experience a positive turn in terms of digital production (see Mitchell,
2014), journalists and other news creators may benefit from re-examining their current
approaches to linking. If there are indeed benefits to linking as studies have shown, and
if audiences are more frequently looking for ways to engage more deeply with news and
those who deliver it, then linking should not be dismissed simply as a means to drive
traffic or point to internal and external resources with high frequency. It should instead
be more critically examined as an evolving tool that, when appropriately incorporated,
could continue to play a pivotal and positive role in the evolution of journalism.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
1. We therefore argue that discourse can have agency. For a full discussion of the agency of
texts, see Cooren (2010).
2. The publications included, Online Journalism Review, Columbia Journalism Review, Nieman
Journalism Lab, and Poynter, all well established outlets of journalism scholarship and news
3. Each site’s own search option – as well as Google (which did not produce new results) – was
used to perform search queries with the following keywords: link, links, hyperlink, link-
ing, hypertext. A manual analysis of the results (examining the title and the first paragraph)
allowed us to select relevant documents, that is, those that primarily addressed the issue of
linking. The initial search resulted in between 10 and 20 documents for each starting point.
4. A discussion of the circulation of metajournalistic discourses across national and linguis-
tic borders can be found in De Maeyer (2013), where we show that there is evidence that
the Anglo-American metajournalistic discourses strongly pervade the French-speaking
5. Sourced articles from the sample are bracketed, with abbreviated citations presented in
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Juliette De Maeyer (PhD, Université libre de Bruxelles, 2013) is an Assistant Professor at the
Department of Communication at Université de Montréal, where her research focuses on the
De Maeyer and Holton 17
intersection of journalism and technology, on the discourses about technological change in jour-
nalism, and on the materiality of newsmaking. Her most recent work has been published in jour-
nals such as Digital Journalism, New Media & Society and Journalism Practice.
Avery E Holton (PhD, University of Texas at Austin, 2013) is an H2 Honors Professor in the
Department of Communication at the University of Utah where his research focuses on social and
digital media and their intersections with news media and health communication. His most recent
work has been published in journals such as Journalism Studies, Communication Studies, Health
Communication, and the Journal of Communication.
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