Way back in the Stone Age of online journalism -- late 1996 -- I wrote an article for The New York Times on the Web (a section called CyberTimes) about the tough road to profitability for "e-zines" such as Word and HotWired. But before I listed links to outside sites, I had to include this important disclaimer:
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this article. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.
How liberating it feels to revisit NYTimes.com and notice that there are actually links right inside the technology stories -- look ma, no disclaimer! We're almost in an Age of Enlightenment with all the links and openness going around the mainstream news sites these days. In just the past few months, the following sites were tearing down walls -- at least figuratively -- and giving props beyond their own stories:
- BBC launched Newstracker to include automated links to relevant outside stories on a select number of BBC stories.
- CNET News.com broadened its "News Around the Web" listing at the bottom of its home page into a full-blown News.com Extra page, with a more offbeat "Missing Links" blog along the sidebar.
- NYTimes.com relaunched its Technology page with free archives to its personal technology Circuits section and a planned Weblog from tech journalist David Pogue.
- Wall Street Journal Online widened its free story per day for bloggers into a few free stories each day. They will also open up the entire site for five days starting November 8.
So, what made these sites, as they clear the way for more links to paid content, change their mentality about sharing links outside their domains?
Bill Grueskin, managing editor of WSJ.com, says the worry about responsibility for the accuracy of outside material is finally fading away.
"I think there may have been hesitation in the early years that if you provided links to something that you were providing implicit endorsement of it," Grueskin said. "There may have been a feeling that if people leave our site then they'll never come back. But we have loyal readership at WSJ.com, so if they go to ESPN.com, it's not like they're not going to come back. We're not endorsing the accuracy of the story...We leave it to the readers to make up their own mind whether it's valid or not."
One of the prime advantages of reading news online is the way you can point your Web browser like one big remote-control clicker, flitting from mainstream news source to political blogger to bulletin board and into international waters. Finally, the larger news sources are secure enough emotionally and financially to realize that hoarding all the eyeballs is an impossible task and goes against the grain of news as conversation and links as currency.
Jai Singh, founding editor of News.com, has long pioneered the use of outside links right on News.com's home page. But the new Extra effort goes far beyond that, with its own special section in addition to outside links to rival news sources at the bottom of every News.com original story.
"We cannot pretend to have eyes and ears on everything that's going on out there," Singh told me. "So you have to accept the fact that you have to engage the readers the way they want to get the news. You have to accept the fact that you can't be the sole gatekeepers. We try to provide the most scoops possible, but we can't be so myopic to say that nothing else exists out there."
Richard Deverell, head of BBC News Interactive for the past four years, admits that the BBC has had to change its ways, learning from the blogging initiatives of the Guardian and others.
"The BBC has been a little coy about [outside linking] for too long, and we should have done more earlier," he told me. "I think Google News has been a shot across the bow of all news originators, making us say 'hold on, there's a different way of doing this.' It's very easy to flip between different sources of news. We either try to reverse that trend, which is likely futile, or we facilitate it, and I'm keen that we take the latter route."
Humans vs. bots
The BBC decided to take a more automated approach by partnering with news feed service Moreover, and then tweaking its algorithm to weigh certain sources -- mainly those in the UK -- more than others. When you bring up a BBC story that has Newstracker, the whole body of that story is used as a search term for about 4,000 Moreover news sources, and then Newstracker pulls up the most relevant and most recently updated stories, presenting three to six links. The link box is stripped after 48 hours because of problems with paid archives or shifting URLs, according to Deverell.
But the advent of Google News and other aggregators wasn't the only driver for Newstracker at BBC. Deverell said audience research showed two related trends, particularly among younger surfers aged 16 to 25: "People do not trust individual sources, no brand is trusted completely -- those days are over," he said. "And people value a range of perspectives. So, for instance, with a political story, we try to give a very impartial account of it, but then the left-wing press will give their perspective and the right-wing press will give a different perspective."
The one striking difference between News.com Extra and BBC Newstracker is that the former is created by human editors and the latter is largely a weighted algorithm similar to Google News. Deverell says having editor picks is a nice idea but is just too labor intensive, while the augmented Moreover feeds are "fantastically automated and therefore cheap."
Singh has long held a contrarian view and proudly has the following motto on the News.com Extra page: "The Web filtered by humans, not bots." While he wouldn't divulge the man/woman hours put into the page, he did say that all reporters had a charge to send in links to stories in the course of their daily online research.
"Isn't it ironic that we're living in an Information Age, whereby people are drowning in information but hungering for knowledge?" Singh said. "How do you figure out, from the hundreds of news sites and aggregators and bloggers, what it is that you should really pursue? You only have so much bandwidth. We'll put our editorial filters on what's going on around the Web, and tell you this is what we think is interesting."
While News.com Extra's front page is indeed generated mostly by humans, it does have an auto-generated sidebar of general, business, sports and entertainment wire service news. Plus, there is a larger unfiltered News Around the Web mega-page that looks like what I imagine Singh's RSS reader would show, with headlines from multiple sources splashed on one long page. Perhaps bots and humans can co-exist in harmony.
Leaks springing in paid walls
Meanwhile, some news sites are opening up previously pay-only content in order to boost readership and gain currency among bloggers and others who might promote links to the stories. Just as some writers at the Los Angeles Times were less than thrilled when the Calendar section was walled off online, a tech columnist at The New York Times, David Pogue, was almost giddy when NYTimes.com decided to open up all his archives for free online.
"I'm thrilled by this development for two reasons," Pogue wrote in his e-mail newsletter. "First, I've always wondered why my reviews of new computers, gadgets and software cost money, when book reviews, movie reviews, and restaurant reviews were a free resource for all. Second, it means that I can stop having to send out copies of past columns to readers who can't find them anymore, or bumming them out by saying, 'You'll have to cough up the three bucks.'"
Eventually Pogue will also have a Weblog on the Times' reborn Technology page. However, the move to open up more archives is probably not just to make Pogue's life easier. Barry Parr, a media consultant and publisher of the ultra-local site Coastsider, says that the Times' move is significant and is really about the plethora of free technology news online.
"Let's face it, there's a lot more competition in the tech market," Parr told me via e-mail. "News.com sets the pace here. I would love to see the Times decide that more of their archives could be opened up and finally kill the myth that the average daily has any financial incentive to charge for their archives."
The Wall Street Journal Online, which had started opening up one story per day --usually on politics -- for bloggers, has also started experimenting with more free stories each day, according to Grueskin. Plus, WSJ.com is offering a kind of online open house during the five-day free-for-all in November.
John Battelle, former publisher of the Industry Standard and current author of a book on Web search, wrote in his blog that WSJ.com should go further, allowing widespread deep-linking to articles behind the wall in order to sell more subscriptions. But Grueskin told me there's a balancing act between opening up a couple stories and giving away the whole store.
"It's more an issue of at what point are you providing so much to people that they don't feel they need a WSJ.com subscription," Grueskin said. "And more than that, what do you think is the big driver for the free story each day? What is the thing that people are going to be interested in, and what will help them drive the conversation, and what will keep them involved while we can keep our franchise?...Between Google News and everything else, we had to decide how to open them up, and it's something I don't have the answer to yet."
The Journal's site also includes a few regular features with outside links, such as The Daily Fix and The Health Scan, and Grueskin says that smart editors picking links works better for WSJ.com than an auto-generated service. As for losing audience to other sites, including those of competitors, News.com's Singh says that serving the readers is paramount.
"Ultimately, if our journalism fails to meet the first criteria -- is our own content worthy of even coming to our site? -- if we fail at that, then it doesn't matter if we have Extra or not," Singh said. "Over time, if you feel that we're saving you time and hassle, if we're helping you with the signal-to-noise ratio, then you'll come back again."