Frank Rich, Outlinker

by Aaron Bradley on March 14, 2011

in News Media

Frank Rich - Outlinker

After three decades, Frank Rich is leaving the New York Times to take up a new position at New York Magazine.  Like many others I'll miss the thoughtfulness of his commentary, the excellence of this prose, and his creative approach to the art of op-ed writing.

I'll also miss Rich's ability to link his columns to the people, events and statistics they reference.  I'm not speaking of linking here in the broad sense of making connections between things (though this is also true of Rich's writing), but in the technical, HTML sense.  Rich links.  A lot.  In fact, the digital edition of Rich's columns for the Times probably contain, on average, more links than those of any other columnist for a major newspaper.

Some might ask whether looking at the link profile of an op-ed columnist is fair or meaningful.  After all these are opinion pieces, right?  I think columnists that link out liberally are doing their readers a service for a number of reasons:

  • Opinion pieces do not exist in a vacuum.  They are almost always anchored to current events, and selectively linking to resources concerning these events enriches the reader's experience.
  • Columnists often cite polls, economic indicators, and other statistics that are available online (which is probably where the columnist encountered them in the first place).  Linking to these sources allows readers to explore these them further, and to independently assess their veracity.
  • Not infrequently a topic under discussion is web-based to begin with.  To talk about a website, a specific page on a website, or a freely-accessible social profile without linking to it is absurd.
  • Providing contextually-relevant links acknowledges the fact that the reader is likeliest to be consuming the column digitally, where you can do useful things that you can't do in the print edition – like add contextually relevant links.  This is perhaps not so much a service to readers, as to a newspaper's shareholders (who might like to be thus assured that the publisher is not wholly hell-bent on obsolescence).

Both internal and external links can be useful to readers.  It is perfectly appropriate for a newspaper column to link to an another page on the same site where relevant related information exists that will better inform readers of the column.  But linking to other sites is vital when an exterior URL is more useful (especially in preference to linking to an internal story that, itself, cites and external source).  Rich links internally when appropriate, but his linking habits are particularly laudable in that he has no reservations pointing his readers to other sites.

One way or another, when it comes to linking, Rich blows his colleagues at the Times out of the water.

New York Times (10 Most Recent Columns)

Columnist Int. Links Av. Int./Column Ext. Links Av. Ext./Column
Bob Herbert 0 0.0 1 0.1
Charles M. Blow 4 0.4 35 3.5
David Brooks 2 0.2 0 0.0
Frank Rich 60 6.0 183 18.3
Gail Collins 4 0.4 1 0.1
Maureen Dowd 1 0.1 3 0.3
Nicholas D. Kristof 8 0.8 11 1.1
Paul Krugman 0 0.0 4 0.4
Roger Cohen 0 0.0 0 0.0
Ross Douthat 17 1.7 29 2.9
Thomas L. Friedman 1 0.1 4 0.4
All 97 0.9 271 2.5
All Without Frank Rich 37 0.4 88 0.9

How does this stack up with other major newspapers online?

Washington Post (10 Most Recent Columns)

Columnist Int. Links Av. Int./Column Ext. Links Av. Ext./Column
Richard Cohen 11 1.1 15 1.5
Anne Applebaum 22 2.2 27 2.7
E.J. Dionne 14 1.4 22 2.2
All 47 1.6 64 2.1

Guardian (10 Most Recent Columns)

Columnist Int. Links Av. Int./Column Ext. Links Av. Ext./Column
Polly Toynbee 33 3.3 51 5.1
Simon Jenkins 26 2.6 2.1 2.1
Seumas Milne 54 5.4 14 1.4
All 113 3.8 86 2.9

Globe and Mail (10 Most Recent Columns)

Columnist Int. Links Av. Int./Column Ext. Links Av. Ext./Column
Margaret Wente 0 0.0 0 0.0
Jeffrey Simpson 0 0.0 0 0.0
Christie Blatchford 0 0.0 0 0.0
All 0 0.0 0 0.0

As the full table of columnists at the Times demonstrates, the nature and quality of links propagated depends in a large measure on the inclinations of individual columnists, so the averages for the Post, Guardian and Globe are going to be rough estimates, given the small number of columnists sampled.  Having said that, I'm not surprised the relatively large number of links found in Guardian columns, as the paper has been on the forefront of British digital journalism for some time.  I expected Post columnists to be a bit more parsimonious with their linking – but, then again, when Dan Froomkin was at the Post his "White House Watch" columns were at least as well-linked as Rich's columns in the Times.

And the Globe and Mail? Either Canada's largest national newspaper has some sort of policy against columnists linking, or their CMS somehow doesn't permit it (I checked a number of other columnists aside from those on the list, and was unable to find a single Globe column that linked out).  I'm inquiring, and will update the post when and if the Globe gets back to me.

UPDATE – 15 March 2011.

Guy Nicholson, the editor who posts Globe op-ed columnists online, responded to my inquiry, saying that this "is not a policy or tech issue – it's a workflow issue."  Hyperlinking is "not discouraged at all," but the links are added by the editor, not the column authors, and this simply hadn't been done for the columns I surveyed.

This illustrates something very interesting about linking at the Globe, and probably globally.  That is, the columns are intended for consumption in print, with hyperlinks to web resources as an afterthought.  Were the columns primarily thought for digital consumption with a print version offered, then columnists (or editors) would encode links at the time of consumption.

In my mind a newspaper with an eye to the future (or even in recognition of current news consumption patterns) would reverse this process:  that is, columnists would submit hyperlinked versions of their stories to their editors, and the links would be stripped for the print edition.  I'm not sure if columnists for any of the papers I've surveyed insert their own hyperlinks or not.  I'm making inquiries of the Times, Post and Guardian to find out, and will update with any responses.  I'm also asking Frank Rich directly about how links made their appearance in his columns for the Times:  given the heavy contextual linking apparent there, I would be not be surprised if links were encoded by Rich or by an editor working specifically on linking with him.

Will Rich continue his rich (cough) linking tradition by liberally peppering the digital edition of his pieces at New York Magazine with useful web pointers?  There are only three authors in the magazine's digital edition listed a "columnists" so it wasn't difficult for me to survey their current linking habits.

New York Magazine (10 Most Recent Columns)

Columnist Int. Links Av. Int./Column Ext. Links Av. Ext./Column
James J. Cramer 0 0.0 0 0.0
John Heilemann 0 0.0 2 0.2
Chris Smith 0 0.0 0 0.0
All 0 0.0 2 0.1

It's not looking good (the anchor text and link target discovered there were "TheAtlantic.com" and "NYTimes.com" respectively, so I suspect they made have been added by the publishing platform, rather than by the authors)!  Rich, in his final column at the Times, speaks of management's willingness there to accommodate his needs; let's hope he can convince New York Magazine to add a link to their columns here and there.

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