Although I started blogging in 2002, the first regular column that I ever wrote for a digital publication was for The Guardian. From 2007 until 2011, I produced a weekly commentary about media, politics and culture that was not much different from what I write now for GBH News. What was new was that, for the first time, I could embed links in my column, just as if I was blogging. I did — liberally. (Only later did my editor tell me that the software he used stripped out all the links I had put in, which meant that he had to restore them all by hand. And this was at one of the most digitally focused newspapers on the planet.)
Links have become a standard part of digital journalism. So I was surprised recently when Ed Lyons, a local political commentator who’s an old-fashioned moderate Republican, posted a Twitter thread denouncing links. It began: “I hereby declare I am *done* with hyperlinks in political writing. Pull up a chair and let me rant about how we got to this ridiculous place. What started off as citation has unintentionally turned into some sort of pundit performance art.”
The whole thread is worth reading. And it got me thinking about the value of linking. Back when everything was in print, you couldn’t link, of course, so opinion columns — constrained by space limitations — tended to include a lot of unattributed facts. The idea was that you didn’t need to credit commonly known background material, such as “North Dakota is north of South Dakota.” Sometimes, though, it was hard to know what was background and what wasn’t, and you didn’t want to do anything that might be perceived as unethical. When linking came along, you could attribute everything just by linking to it. And many of us did.
In his thread, Lyons also wrote that “it is my opinion that nobody visits any of these links. I think readers see the link and say oh well that must be true.” I agree. In fact, I tell my students that no one clicks on links, which means that they should always write clearly and include all the information they want the reader to know. The link should be used as a supplement, not as a substitute. To the extent possible, they should also give full credit to the publication and the writer when they’re quoting something as well as providing a link.
I agree with Lyons that links ought to add value and not just be put in gratuitously. And they certainly shouldn’t be snuck in as a way of whispering something that you wouldn’t want to say out loud. The classic example of that would be a notorious column a couple of years ago by Bret Stephens of The New York Times, who wrote that the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews might be genetically superior — and backed it up with a link to a study co-authored by a so-called scientist who had been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist and a eugenicist. Stephens’ assertion was bad enough; his citation was worse, even if few people read it.
One of the most successful self-published writers currently is the historian Heather Cox Richardson. I’ve noticed that she leaves links out of her Substack essays entirely, posting them at the bottom instead. Here’s an example. I’m not going to do that, but it seems to be a decent compromise — showing her work while not letting a bunch of links clutter up her text.
In any event, I don’t expect you to follow the links I include in my writing. They’re there if you want to know more, or if you want to see if I’m fairly characterizing what I’m describing. At the very least, Lyons has reminded me of the value of including links only when they really matter.
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