If only every blogger could link to stories the way Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit does. The libertarian blogger, with his hundreds of thousands of readers, offers up dozens of daily snippets that typically consist of a single sentence and a link. Sometimes it’s a headline or even a single word — “Heh.” As a result, those being linked by Reynolds report above-average click-through rates to their content.

Not all bloggers link to news in this way, and it’s a source of friction between news organizations, bloggers and news aggregators. Earlier this month, Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira wrote a story detailing his displeasure with the way Gawker had taken material from one of his articles.

Also this month, media consultant Arnon Mishkin argued in a Paid Content op-ed, “The Fallacy of the Link Economy,” that news aggregators often effectively trap traffic within their own sites while sending out minimal traffic of their own.

“Even in an absolute best-case scenario for producers of original content, the aggregators get at least as much traffic on linked stories as the creators of those stories because anyone who clicks on the link does so from the aggregator’s site (so each site gets a page view),” Mishkin argued.

His piece was criticized for its lack of concrete data, but Mishkin’s argument highlights the different methods that websites utilize when giving attribution to other sources. Many heavily summarize or block quote headlines and ledes. Some bury their links at the bottom of a post, and a few neglect to include any link at all. In other words, not all links are created equal. As a result, news outlets are paying more attention to how their content is being linked. (For a look at the various ways bloggers use content, check out this story by Mark Glaser about using a “Steal-O-Meter.”)

Back in July I shared my own story of having a prominent link to my site placed on the front page of Huffington Post. Though I’d previously been linked by Huffington Post, the URLs were usually buried within long blog posts. A few hundred readers came to my blog via each of these links. In contrast, I received nearly 40,000 visitors over the course of a weekend after having a headline link prominently displayed on the front page of the site. It was obvious that because my blog was linked in the headline itself, readers were much more enticed to read the underlying content.

The reality is that website owners often have little say in how Huffington Post and other blogs and aggregators link to their content. But if given a voice, what would they say? What do newspapers feel is the best way for a blogger to link to their content? And what do they do when they feel that a website has stolen a story?

To answer these questions, I spoke to several web editors at major newspapers.

Problems with Smaller Sites

i-eb71ed342fd675cf1a74afa0c23b0fa8-jane elizabeth.jpg
Jane Elizabeth

Jane Elizabeth, an online editor for the Virginian-Pilot, said that she’s mostly satisfied with how big players like Google News and Yahoo package links to her paper’s site. She explained that their approach of using a headline and brief sentence or two is just enough to get readers engaged and clicking, adding that internal metrics show the Pilot gets a good amount of traffic from these portals. Most of the problems come from much smaller sites.

“I think aggregators and bloggers, we have different problems with them,” Elizabeth told me. “I think when we do have problems, it is with blogs or with small organizational website — some kind of club or industry website that really doesn’t know how to do it right, and that’s my sense of it. They’re just not that sure what they should be doing or how they should be linking out, or they’ve never really thought about it before.”

If, for example, the Virginian-Pilot writes about an organization or business, the subject of the story will often copy and paste the entire piece to their website, sometimes even without a link. In those instances, Elizabeth or another editor will send a polite email explaining why this isn’t permissible.

She said that there are no hard and fast rules for linking to Virginian-Pilot articles, and that in most instances common sense prevails.

“As long as they’re providing a link to us, and in their analysis they’re not stealing our ideas and quotes from the stories, then that’s fine with us,” she said. “Obviously we like to be mentioned as much as we can. I’m certainly not going to complain about that.”

Staff members will contact website owners when they feel their copyright is being infringed upon, but they don’t have the time or manpower to police it heavily. A sizable amount of infringement falls through the cracks.

Fostering Relationships with Bloggers

Meredith Artley

Meredith Artley, an online managing editor for the Los Angeles Times, estimated that bloggers and news aggregators link to the newspaper correctly 90 percent of the time. Like Elizabeth, Artley considers it fine when a blogger pulls a sentence or two — or even an entire paragraph — with a link attached. It’s when they begin quoting three or four paragraphs when the water gets murky.

“Even if they are linking to us in multiple places, we’re not really a fan of that,” she said.

Like the other editors I spoke to, the Los Angeles Times will contact a blogger or website owner if he or she has crossed the often-ambiguous line. Artley said that when the newspaper contacts a blogger about linking practices, the person almost always changes the post to a more agreeable format.

“I think those bloggers understand why we need to do that,” Artley said. “It’s not this bureaucratic voice of the Los Angeles Times saying you should stop. It’s more like, ‘Listen, if you’re appreciating the work we’re doing, then we need you to support it by not stealing it.’ So we regularly send out emails. If we have a personal relationship with the bloggers, sometimes I’ll just drop a casual note saying, ‘Hey, I notice that you’re doing this, cut it out.’ And other times if we don’t know the blogger and we don’t have a connection, or if it’s a bigger blog where we don’t know the individual people, we’ll send a more formal letter.”

Some major news organizations have complained about the role blogs and news aggregators play in sucking away traffic and advertising dollars, but Artley was generally positive about the benefits blogs provide in exposing Times content to new readers. For her, the power of the link is much more enticing than a closed system.

“The more we reach out, the more we tell people about our coverage, the more we get our stories covered on other sites, and [by] new technologies, the more we spread the word,” she said. “The idea is that’s better for us in the long run, as opposed to clamping down and saying don’t link to us…The idea is to be open to experiment and see what works.”

Giving Proper Credit

i-0ee4c751eaf9fed3dd2731c48bbb961d-audrey 2.jpg
Audrey Cooper

Audrey Cooper, metro editor for the San Fransisco Chronicle, told me that the problem of improper attribution stems from the overall failure of the entire industry to convince the public of the importance of newspapers. She said that just about every major news story that is written about by blogs or talked about on radio and TV comes from the work of a newspaper reporter.

“We’re in a position that if newspapers don’t do a good enough job explaining how they’re important, and how that history of information is processed, it’s not going to just be the Chronicle that doesn’t survive, or the Rocky Mountain News that doesn’t survive, it’s going to be a huge amount of newsgathering that’s going to be eliminated,” she said.

Cooper views a link to an article to be the bare minimum a blogger can offer, and she said that ideally the person would put in a greater effort to give credit to the Chronicle. For example, she prefers it when a blogger mentions the newspaper’s name when using any of its reporting.

“Even with a short blog post, not everyone is going to scroll all the way down to see where you got all this information,” she said. “And beyond that, maybe a lot of people won’t care, but if you say, ‘As you may have seen on the Chronicle’s website on Thursday,’ and then have a link embedded to that, that’s a lot more transparent for everybody involved. And what’s the harm in saying that? There’s no reason not to.”

Unlike some of the other editors I spoke to, Cooper said the Chronicle doesn’t put much effort into policing what it perceives to be copyright infringement, mainly because many of the blogs that do it are so small. Still, she said that as a whole these blogs can hurt the newspaper by causing “death by a thousand paper cuts.”

The question, she said, is which blog will provide the thousandth, fatal cut?

Image of chain links via Mathew Ingram.

Simon Owens is a social media consultant and associate editor for MediaShift. For more about him read his blog or contact him at simon.bloggasm@gmail.com