J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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Philly.com’s Convention Coverage and the Ethic of the Link

Posted by chanders on September 2, 2008

\After spending the last couple weeks retracing the past, reading gloomy financial reports and crunching truly depressing employment numbers (with more bad news possibly on the way) it was good to get back to looking at the present and what will hopefully be Philly journalism’s bright future. One of the things I’ve been interested in during my research has been what Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, and many others call the “ethic of the link.” The answer to this simple question– how often do newspapers and other online websites link off their domain name– can give you a number of insights into how various online content providers view their journalistic roles. Does a website see itself as a hub, a filter, or a network?  Or, is it trying to be a “one stop shopping center”? Is it afraid of its autonomous online audience? Or, does it trust them?

In short: how is a website’s “vision of its users and vision of its producers” inscribed in its online architecture?

The conventional wisdom about linking out –“that in general there is a strong relationship between news websites linking out and getting links in return”– was recently been subjected to a fairly rigorous quantitative analysis, complete with an impressive looking formula.  The result? The conventional wisdom is more or less right on. Links out – links in.

Not surprisingly, it’s taken many newspapers a long time to come to terms with this counter-intuitive idea. A topic I’m examining during my research is: how do old media companies work to build  “news networks” during their coverage of special, one-time events …  events like a mayoral race, a political protest, or a national party convention?

One of the ways to build a news network, of course, is to link to other websites. During the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, I took screencaps of the Philly.com “Politics” page, and compared it with the politics pages of three other websites — the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as the more local Newsday.com. In many ways, I thought Newsday was the best comparison with Philly.com because the Newsday website was often invoked in Philadelphia as a potential model for or competitor to the Philadelphia website.

We can see where both Philly.com and Newsday Politics linked out on this page, with both sections highlighted in yellow. You can also see where the Times and the WaPo linked out after the jump.

Perhaps surprisingly, a basic visual analysis shows Philly.com to be the closest thing to an online political hub of any of the four sites. The Times and the Post barely link to anything off their domain name. Newsday links to other websites, but they are either to their own internal blogs or to “The Swamp,” a political blog published by the Tribune Company that is distributed to all Tribune Compay papers (Newsday included). Philly.com not only links out, but does so in key real estate areas (in the center of the website, as opposed to the bottom of the site like the Times).

Why might Philly.com have been so comfortable with linking out? It is tempting to say that they did so because of their inability to match the Times and the Post pound for pound in terms of the scale of coverage. As large, national papers, both the Times and the Post have the resources to “flood the political convention zone”; Philly.com, a much smaller site, lacks these resources. Indeed, some of its original content consisted of reporters sitting at home, watching the conventions on TV!

That said, this isn’t necessarily bad. Indeed, as many media critics have pointed out, is there really anything to be gained by wall to wall convention coverage? Possibly not. Indeed, because of its willingness to share its link traffic, Philly.com most likely reaped a marginal level of return traffic at the very least. And journalistically, it pointed its readers to (at least in theory) “the best the web had to offer” in terms of political analysis.

It’s also worth asking: what will Newsday.com do once it is no longer officially owned by Tribune? Will it continue to link to “The Swamp” I can’t say for sure, but my guess would be probably not. Indeed, the way Newsday.com has structured it’s links section strikes me as the product of a top-down decision– “link only to company blogs, dammit!” This is all only a guess, though. It will be worth seeing that happens once the sale has a chance to affect the site.

Of course, really understanding how a Philly.com acts as a hub would require a more extensive investigation. I’m planning on conducting a content analysis of the linking patterns of various webpages over the days and months ahead.

19 Responses to “Philly.com’s Convention Coverage and the Ethic of the Link”

  1. […] aspect of the whole Philly.com site (although Philly.com/politics is pretty norg-y as well,as I noted in an earlier post). An example of a site designed almost entirely as a network is Philly Future; its life is […]

  2. […] on December 4, 2008 With the online debut of New York Times “Extra” , that beautiful study I did of newspapers (not) linking out is now a historical study of past journalistic reluctance to […]

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