Is the Linking Bug Enough to Save Mainstream News?

The New York Times’ October 13th print edition had two ironically juxtaposed articles side-by-side on B4; Mainstream News Outlets Start Linking to Other Sites and Newspapers’ Web Revenue is stalling.

Of course the two phenomena are linked.  Declining or stagnant revenue will ultimately lead any organization or industry to rethink itself.  But a general directive from some of the organization’s hierarchy will not be enough to create the culture of “link journalism” referred to in the former.  For one thing, the obviously relevant articles do not link to each other!  It is a large step forward for the organizations profiled (mostly the New York Times itself, along with NBC and the Washington Post.)

More importantly than a culture of links must come a revival of the personalities that used to differentiate papers from each other.  The commercial boosterism of the Chandlers’ Times, the America-first militancy of McCormack’s Tribune, or for that matter, the omnivous internationalism of the New York Times were defining characteristics that lead those papers above the fray in the once highly competitive local newspaper market.

The acid test of, say, a technology section of a newspaper is not whether it links to TechCrunch, but has a view, consistently and rapidly executed on and voice that competes with TechCrunch.  This is the essence of the successful blogosphere.  With the consolidation and maturation of the newspaper market and largely always-consolidated television market over the course of the twentyth century the voices of these outlets often stagnated into a safe objectivity that preserved what often would be a media duopoly in any given market.

One hopes to see them succeed.  The objectivity, longer term-timeframe and copy-editing “mainstream” media have as part of their DNA are both a civic resource and ultimately set a bar for most bloggers to rise to.   Those that can solve in their business model the problems of voice, frequency of material, and linking will.

(The PR implication of a shift in what are still the 800-pound gorillas of attention is to find the right messages for the right audience no matter what the initial size of the outlet that will cover the story is.  If the Universe is going to link to something you better get it right the first time.)