Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has posted the Twitter stream that followed upon his tweet criticizing the Wall Street Journal for running an article based on a post by TechCrunch’s MC Siegler, who responded in an angry post.

Mathew’s point is that linking is a good journalistic practice, even if author of the the second article independently confirmed the information in the first, as happened in this case. Mathew thinks it’s a matter of trust, and if the repeater gets caught at it, it would indeed erode trust. Of course, they probably won’t, and even if you did read the WSJ article after reading the TechCrunch post, you’d probably assume that the news was coming from a common source.

I think there’s another reason why reports ought to link to their, um, inspirations: Links are a public good. They create a web that is increasingly rich, useful, diverse, and trustworthy. We should all feel an obligation to be caretakers of and contributors to this new linked public.

And there’s a further reason. In addition to building this new infrastructure of curiosity, linking is a small act of generosity that sends people away from your site to some other that you think shows the world in a way worth considering. Linking is a public service that reminds us how deeply we are social and public creatures.

Which I think helps explains why newspapers often are not generous with their links. A paper like the WSJ believes its value — as well as its self-esteem — comes from being the place you go for news. It covers the stories worth covering, and the stories tell you what you need to know. It is thus a stopping point in the ecology of information. And that’s the oeprational definition of authority: The last place you visit when you’re looking for an answer. If you are satisfied with the answer, you stop your pursuit of it. Take the links out and you think you look like more of an authority. To this mindset, links are sign of weakness.

This made more sense when knowledge was paper-based, because in practical terms that’s pretty much how it worked: You got your news rolled up and thrown onto your porch once a day, and if you wanted more information about an article in it, you were pretty much SOL. Paper masked just how indebted the media were to one another. The media have always been an ecology of knowledge, but paper enabled them to pretend otherwise, and to base much of their economic value on that pretense.

Until newspapers are as heavily linked as GigaOm, TechCrunch, and Wikipedia, until newspapers revel in pointing away from themselves, they are depending on a value that was always unreal and now is unsustainable.

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