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Hitting the links: sportswriting and hyperlinks ideal for information-hungry sports fans

Last week, a number of digital-journalism thinkers debated why news organizations – particularly print-centric ones – often fail to offer links to other websites, reports and other organizations’ work in the online versions of their stories. Was the chief culprit lousy software? Workflow problems? Or was it a larger issue of opposition to the “link culture” of the digital world?

After I weighed in, a friend asked me how the lessons of the debate applied to sports departments. My first reaction was that they didn’t – sportswriters are ahead of their peers in other departments when it comes to linking, just as they’ve embraced (or at least accepted) Twitter, blogging and the fact that the captured-in-amber print story is just one small aspect of journalism today.

But thinking about it more, I decided debates like last week’s were an opportunity for exploring what’s become generally accepted practice for linking, why links are just a great fit for sports, and what we still don’t know – or are still furiously debating – about links.

First of all, the link is the fundamental tenet of not just digital journalism but online information. The link is the key that gave us access to the staggering vistas of information all of us now have to explore, and what allows us to jump from write to writer and issue to issue nearly as quickly as we can think. (This is also what’s driven journalism into crisis, throwing every paper into competition with every other paper and with a huge number of new competitors, from writers outside journalism to teams, leagues, agents and athletes acting as their own publishers. But that was inevitable – refusing to link won’t turn back the clock.)

A link is a connection – one that can do any number of things. It’s a way of providing convenience to the reader, allowing him or her to dive more deeply into an argument, explanation or exploration of something. It also provides convenience to the writer, making for handy shorthand that can streamline narratives and keep them from being overwhelmed by digressions. It’s a way of demonstrating credibility by linking to sources being discussed, particularly if you’re arguing with someone. (On the web, it’s easy to check if a writer is summarizing someone else’s position fairly or not – and the lack of a link is a warning sign.) Beyond that, of course, links are used for log-rolling, showing off, being goofy or most anything else you can think of. If you’re just slapping stories up in pixels instead of ink, you’re missing the chance to deliver a much richer experience to readers.

Why do links work so well for sports? For openers, it’s because sports are already so dense with information – and because many fans see this density as a welcome thing, deepening their enjoyment of a game. The humble game story may need reinvention, but it’s made richer by now-standard links to player stats, the box score, play-by-play and more. Like innumerable other sports fans of a certain age, I spent my childhood poring over brief newspaper game recaps and box scores, wondering about teams and players generally only glimpsed on This Week in Baseball. The modern, full-linked game story leads down an astonishing rabbit hole of stats, photos, video and more. It would have seemed like the stuff of dreams to my younger self. When you step back a bit and think like a reader instead of like a writer, it still does.

Secondly, we have a bottomless appetite for sports news, information and opinion. A long article full of links to video, primary sources and other articles may feel like homework if it’s about global warming, but be greeted like a grand repast if it’s about a playoff game won by a reader’s favorite team. This is one reason aggregation – collecting links into a summary or narrative – works so well in sports. Only a policy wonk would read four or five different accounts of the latest twist in the health-care debate, but plenty of fans will happily read that many columns previewing a key series or recounting a big win.

Third, sports are simultaneously intensely visual and deeply contextual. A game yields up highlights and photos, and also summons up memories and connections for fans – and links are great tools for unlocking that. Any appreciation of Secretariat is deepened by watching footage of his jaw-dropping win at the Belmont Stakes, an old play-by-play account can bring a classic game back to vivid life, and a photo can be worth a million words, whether inspiring or appalling.

Most news organizations that fail to link generally do so for mundane reasons: lousy software or inefficient workflows. Organizations that consciously choose not to link are pretty rare, but their objections generally come down to three common concerns, all of which I think are overblown.

The first is a fear of losing traffic. On the surface this seems reasonable: How does it possibly help you to send readers to somebody else’s site? But readers who are hungry for more information aren’t going to skip it without your help – they’re just going to be slowed down, and possibly remember that you were of no use. If you help them often enough, on the other hand, they may come to trust you as a source for good information beyond what you produce yourself, and make your sports section a habit – which is what we all want, regardless of medium.

Moreover, though proponents of the “link economy” would brand this thought as heretical, I suspect linking generates a lot less traffic than people think – readers can glean what they need from a summary, without actually clicking. This isn’t a suggestion that you steal the essence of a competitor’s story by summarizing all of its salient points and making the link unnecessary – that’s dirty pool. But it is an acknowledgment that a reader who knows what’s out there may be reassured enough not to need to search further.

A second reason is a fear of shooting the messenger – worries that sending readers to other material will be taken as an endorsement of that material. This strikes me as lawyerly and faintly condescending, which is a lousy combination. We’re collectively in about our 15th year of being rigorously taught to read skeptically and scrutinize the motives behind material. Readers who still think a link must lead to content you produced, or assume you approve of it, are likely burdened with too many basic misconceptions about information for you to fix. (For more, here are five guiding principles for linking.

Finally, there’s the fear of distracting the reader. This concern gets short shrift sometimes – it’s almost certainly true that we pause, however briefly, when our eyes reach a hyperlink, distracting us to some degree from what we’re reading. And I’m sure there are some readers who never finish an article because they follow a link — which leads to another and within a hour the ankle-bone-connected-to-the-shin-bone nature of the web has left you reading about butterflies or watching Runaways videos. But again, for most readers hyperlinks are no longer a novelty, and we’ve been given a crash course in zeroing in on which links are worthwhile and reading around the ones that aren’t. We’re still experimenting with the best way to present links, but the danger of distraction strikes me as far less than the danger of not providing links at all.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Email him, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.

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