Time for newspapers to get out of 'spoiling business' and start attributing sources

The Times on Monday carried a story that appears to rely heavily on the work of a blogging journalist. It's about the TV "phone con". Other papers too followed the story up. Nowhere is the journalist mentioned, referred or linked to. And no money exchanged hands.

Here are the links: www.tinyurl.com/35jw2a and /www.tinyurl.com/2vtg3n You can do the comparison yourself.

In the blogs I read, articles link back to sources or refer readers around different views so they can better orient themselves. That helps me trust those blogs.

To demonstrate the point, here's a random example from the blog of The Guardian's Neil McIntosh: "Cars and road transport are responsible for around 20 per cent of CO2 emissions in the EU today. Emissions from cars and road transport are expected to contribute to a 50 per cent rise in CO2 emissions by 2020."

The first underline links to an AP story, the second to a Reuters piece. McIntosh is linking to the sources he quotes, twice in two sentences, each fact-trackable.

Good blogs take the trouble of showing where their information is coming from. As newspapers shift online they could learn a lot from that.

Traditionally newspapers have been in the spoiling business. A rewrite of an exclusive doesn't mention the source. Television is little better. But call to mind a recent example of an exclusive.

Last November The Telegraph's Jeff Randall revealed that Michael Grade was heading to ITV. A Guardian snap story at 11.20pm on 27 November acknowledged Randall as the source. As the story developed, media readers were treated to a discussion of the "back- ground" to the story from Matt Wells that acknowledged Randall's role.

Did I throw The Guardian down in disgust because it hadn't got the scoop in an area of news it resources more intensively than any other paper? I did not. Besides, reading it online I'd have trashed my monitor.

Its strong follow-up coverage delivered on analysis, background and new incremental developments. The Randall example is a little kind. There are plenty of occasions when the urge to attribute goes missing.

It's not just a British thing — a recent case in the US highlighted a local paper in Colorado that was lifting stories from competitors and running them under an AP byline.

Strong attribution and linking is actually an indicator not of weakness, but of strength. Readers can decide for themselves what new material journalists have brought to the party.

Editors can judge the value they're getting from newsgathering, and it puts direct competitive pressure on journalists to come up with story elements that are genuinely new, or angles that are demonstrably better.

Sometimes it can be as simple as retelling a tale slicker and smarter. A site as dumbly entertaining as Manhattan's Gawker (www.gawker.com) spends almost its whole time doing just that. The Independent's USP is the telling more often than the tale.

So if I wanted to make my news operation more efficient, I would start by making it more transparent about its attribution off and online.

Trust your readers to appreciate your openness and the quality of the "valueadded" delivered by your journalism.

Encourage them to read your rivals and your sources and you might just find the result is that the process raises everyone's game. Really.

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