Problems with AP’s new “linking” policy

UPDATE 7/25/11, 3:18 p.m. PST : The AP has responded to some of my points. Their statements are below.

If anything, the AP’s decision to start linking to original sources is a hindrance. Because now, in addition to news outlets everywhere reproducing the same exact stories, they will all include unlinked URLs.

Trust me, I’m all for hyperlinking. It’s the fabric of the web, what makes the web functional, and I think more newspapers should be doing it — and more often. But what we have here is a technology problem and an ideology problem. I’m sure if the AP could write through stories using HTML (and, of course, have that HTML stripped once it hits the print CMS), they would do it. Or at least I hope they would.  But their solution of including links — in parentheticals — isn’t the way to credit newspapers or drive traffic.

There are so many problems at play here.

1. News producers are going to have to manually link the URLs. So, when the AP says its going to link to “straight pickups” (as in, stories which derive entirely from a member’s reporting), they really mean they’re just going to insert a link in to the story. So, for example, the link won’t look like this. It will look like this (

With the lack of producers in most newsrooms and the wealth of wire content that gets shoved onto news websites, I doubt producers will prioritize manual linking on top of their other duties. And even if they do, this is probably two-five minutes of extra work per story published. Which comes out to probably an hour of work per day, depending on how many AP stories get pushed to the web at a particular website.

2. As a result of that, the links instead clutter a story, rather than driving traffic. Readers aren’t going to take the time to manually type in or copy/paste a link, whether they see it in print or online. It’s less work to Google a search term if you’re interested in reading more about a print story. If the URLs were inline linked, the UX is such that clicking through would actually happen. So, now, we’ll have all these stories with unlinked bit.lys, which is a confusing and unintuitive usage for readers.

3. Adding bit.lys still doesn’t fix the fundamental problem at play here. We are all reposting the same stories over and over. Today, Amy Winehouse died. I saw this on Twitter, then reported on BBC.  I sat at my desk waiting for the AP slug to come across the budget list. As soon as it did, I published the AP obituary. So did about a dozen other newspapers, and probably more afterwards. We do this with national stories every day.

Imagine if we all just linked to the original reports from news outlets who have the stories first. And imagine if part of the AP’s role — if they truly want to be “more like an aggregator and less like a rewrite desk” — was to find those scoops and push those links out to member sites, so we could all link back to the original reports and send traffic where traffic is due, then add our own original reporting when and where necessary. This would increase the value of everyone’s content and save time.

AP is headed in the right direction (kind 0f), but the technology needs to catch up so linking can be done right. Until then, inline, unlinked links are probably not going to be hugely useful.

UPDATE: Paul Colford, AP’s director of media relations, said this via email:

I’m sorry you didn’t seek comment from the AP.

Of course, we’d prefer to offer embedded links. We just can’t do it technically,  with 100 percent assurance that the content will reach the customer/reader.

The AP doesn’t publish into a single CMS, as business-to-consumer news organizations do. As a provider of news to some 1,500 member news organizations that make up the not-for-profit AP cooperative, as well as to thousands of other commercial customers around the world, we publish into thousands of CMS and all the variations in how they handle content.