Journalism and linking: permalinks for content are important too.

The debate has been burning up the journalism community on Twitter all weekend: a hotly contested issue of linking and primary sources. If you didn’t break a story, should you cite the person who did and link to them? Felix Salmon maintains – probably rightly – that in most cases, readers won’t be clicking on those links anyway. His exhaustive discussion of the topic is a great read all by itself.

For my part, as a person who began blogging eight years or so ago, linking to other sources is a matter of course. It’s just what bloggers do, even if we know that in many cases, that link will not be clicked on. I’ve always considered it a sort of in-line bibliography (my topics are not always journalistic) and a means of providing your readers a direction to go to find out more about a topic that you’ve discussed.

It does feel ethical to cite where you’ve gotten things. I’ve often gotten the distinct impression that one reason mainstream media refuses to cite its sources is that its easier to maintain the pretense of journalism-as-distict-from-blogging if you don’t have to give bloggers, twitter accounts and other non-traditional sources credit for anything. You can keep using the lame, bland and uninformative tropes Felix Salmon refers to: “sources say,” or “those close to the discussions say…”

But as long as we’re discussing linking, there is another side of the story that should not be over looked, particularly for editors and those in positions to affect web structure. And that is my biggest pet peeve in citing news articles: the fact that many news orgs do not maintain their content past a certain date.

That date can be as little as a month. After this time, the link you created to give your source credit is dead as a door nail. Local news is particularly bad in this habit. Nor is it at all necessary: blogs have long maintained “permalink” structures that allow content to remain online indefinitely without using up namespaces or cluttering up URLs. Why news orgs feel the need to move content from one place to another is beyond me.

And it is, in my estimation at least, unethical. It has the feeling of saying, “well, this may not have been accurate, so let’s get rid of it.” Yes, facts change as we go forward. New facts come to light. It’s important to impress upon visitors that “this is old news,” and encourage them to read the more current stuff. But it’s also important to take ownership of what you’ve put out in the past. Yanking back old content may rob people of valuable information – the very same information journalists everywhere are arguing about right now.

There is currently a project underway in Rochester to link together as many journalistic and informational resources as possible and facilitate new thinking among the journalism community here in Rochester. Its called Hackers and Hacks ( #hhroc ), and I very-much support the effort. But a critical question that journalists and their bosses need to ask is: if we want permanent access to critical information, do we not also have the obligation to provide it?

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.