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Giant shoulders and the chain of knowledge

August 7, 2009

The new world is not so different from the old world – it just moves faster and in different ways.

As early as the 12th century, the image of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants came into discourse to mean that all knowledge advances based on the discoveries of the past.

In academia and in journalism that notion has been coupled with the doctrine of attribution – you need to acknowledge the shoulders you’re standing on, to give due credit but also to allow others to search out that perch and see if their view from it is any different.

To me, the current debate about the “Link Economy” in content terms is about:

Are you part of the conversation?
Are you adding to the debate or just playing postman and passing others’ views on?
Are you adding value and …
Are you getting rewarded for adding the value you do?

As head of a journalistic army of 2,700 professionals I obviously have an intense vested interest in ensuring that their work is valuable to readers and valued by them.

Part of that involves ensuring that they are in the centre of the action and that they fill their reports with their expertise and experience. Part of that involves ensuring that they are part of the debate, that their reports inform the debate and that the debate, in turn, informs their future reporting.

Our standards on sourcing have always emphasized the importance of giving proper credit, even when quoting from competitors. And, of course, we expect the same in return.

In the writing we do specifically for the web we’re as open to outbound linking as we are to the inbound (see Felix Salmon for some good examples). Much of our other writing doesn’t currently use outbound links because of the particular ecosystem of our professional products, for which a lot of it is specifically written. But that, I am sure, will change over time.

The real danger in not being extremely open to linking, it seems to me, is that by moving yourself out of the mainstream debate you risk irrelevancy.

There will be other shoulders to stand on.

Those shoulders will be the ones that provide the lift.

Those shoulders will be the ones that will help advance knowledge and debate.

The fact that today the crediting can be done with a hyperlink is to me intellectually no different than the use of an academic footnote or a traditional journalistic “…according to XYZ in an interview”. It’s just better, because it’s fast, direct and creates an instant chain of knowledge.

What’s more interesting to me is what one does with the link, not the link itself.

I have a passing interest in the link or retweet that simply passes a nugget along.

I have a bit more interest when the linker or retweeter extracts real gold that was hidden in the original and gives it more prominence.

I have a lot more interest when the link or retweet uses the original as a jumping off point for argument, debate, or development.

That’s when it gets interesting.

And that’s when we, too, stand on that tower of giant shoulders people started visualising in the 12th century.


lnteresting. Nice article. lm retired like journalist but to write is my life. l write poems, essay, books , songs everything but in French, lm french women. Good day and thanks David Schlesinger!

Posted by Martine Lajoie | Report as abusive

Yes, I must agree with the above poster in that this was a refreshing article and it captures much of what must be considered in today’s world of journalism and new media including blogs. Perhaps the article is even relevant to the recent news regarding Rupert Murdoch’s change in strategy and proposal of more fee based access to media as well as what seems to be a recent upsurge among mainstream media pundits who have begun to chastize bloggers.Obviously blogging does come with some responsibilities, as should mainstream journalism. Lately I have found myself trying to calculate the actual worth of mainstream financial journalism and have concluded that the integrity of sources can either add greatly to the end product or, if absent, can very much detract from value.I wish I had a quarter for every article that I have read over the past year or so during the course of this ongoing financial crisis that had the nerve to cite sources supposedly close to matters but who managed to somehow remain unnamed. For childrens books and fairy tales most of us still have some type of public library system available to us. For financial news and media most reglar people such as myself are no doubt very dependent in large part on mainstream media outlets. Such outlets can either choose to mislead or portray truths through journalism. Over time the core values of an outlet usually become apparent. When they do, making the desicion to continue subscribing can be a very easy thing to do for astute observers.Financial media in the U.S. might be halfway rotten but, on the bright side, I just saved a bunch of money on my newpaper subscriptions.


Good post. What’s more, the last six lines are a wonderful lesson to anyone who wishes to participate in the global conversation, and he or she would need nothing more than a well-updated blog in order to begin.


Dear friend,nice article,nicely reviewed.nicely admired.Global editors blogs,global viewers on any interesting subjects are to be welcomed by all.I am a Humanists.whatever i have,i am expressing it by well known networks.Hope to get more lively,thought oriented writings from you.With best wishes.,


Refreshing approach to writing.True, all of us stand on others’shoulders,may be it is parents,friends,colleagues,through out life.But the tragedy is we do not acknowledge it.In life, we owe to so many.Writing gives greatest pleasure when written under an urge to write and not for money.Such outpouring thoughts become Classics and stand the test of Time.Investigative journalism and researched articles may appeal to mind but not to heart.As an aside, how is it that all theoritical advances in Science and Arts subjects, have not evolved further after late 19th century?

Posted by S.V.Ramanan | Report as abusive

Thank you for writing this article. It is a gift.I think that Global editors blogs are giving opportunities to all of us to express in a responsable way about diferent actual events of all kind around the world. Acts of personal expressions that are done with freedom, and not by money, with mind and heart at the same time.The blogs communication opens to all to share common ground and dialogue. At least that is my overview vision.That interaccion and interchange of own experiences, ideas and opinions I think enrich the common knowledge of all of us. Rules and responsabiiity of writing inside any blog is in constant update, what means for me that blogs are becoming a strong power in pubic opinion, but that does not means to less power of the journalism, I think both can ooexist.

Posted by Maria | Report as abusive

I like the part when you write about giving value “all knowledge advances based on the discoveries of the past”cheers


It would not be unusual to see politicians attempt to capitalize upon the death of Ted Kennedy as a reason to pass the health care bill as tribute to his dedication on the issue but that would be a very wrongful use of his death by most political standards, and a disrespectful tribute at that for everything that Ted Kennedy stood for in the way of political manipulation and debate.Never caving in to stronger interests was his style, and it is one of the things which made him so valuable in the U.S. Senate, and the one to beat – on any issue.No one loved his mother more, and no one was willing to sacrifice political expediency for public safety than Ted Kennedy – no matter what was on the table. Perhaps from his own tragedy in his life, he knew the importance of safety, and wasn’t willing to compromise the safety of others.The health care bill, if any good, must stand on its own – without the aid of a Ted Kennedy now – and die or survive on its own merits. To do anything different would be a grave injustice to everything Ted Kennedy stood for in America.

Posted by Pat | Report as abusive

Hi David,Thanks for the insightful blog.A few years back I gave a talk that was similar in nature. I was speaking about the evolution of industries in the post-Industrial Revolution world.In the talk I drew analogies between industries and how the cross-fertilization of ideas between industries created a perpetual cycle of innovation for decades.In this talk my sound-bite conclusion was “Look to the past to see the future clearly”.By standing on other’s shoulders we build upon their successes. What is more powerful is understanding the struggles and highlights of their journey. Understanding the knowledge acquired from their journey enables us to create a more solid foundation for the people who will stand on our shoulders.Best,Tom


“Standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us” has been a common world experience for many centuries. What’s evident today, increasingly very suspect. Most major newspapers and TV do not present an unbiased view of the current “news”. They prefer instead to present ideologically-based opinions mixed immoderately with news stories, and to report ONLY ideologically-selected stories.So, “standing on the shoulders” of the reportage of most of todays’ news organizations is (unfortunately) an exercise in futility. Until TV and print journalism go back to CLEARLY separating opinion from news, and to presenting an unbiased selection of the available news stories, we will lose all of the value of building upon those who have gone before, EXCEPT the effects of building further division and polarization.

Posted by mike | Report as abusive

this is more a question than a comment…I tried to get a point across a couple weeks ago, but you would not allow it…that does not seem fair since this is my home-page….I am an avid reader, I share many of your articles…but in being honest with you…you back off…please! why do you have the same page 3-4 days in a row?? it is old, stale news….please address this!


Dear Editors:-I have worked through all the country pages, may I make some suggestions:1) a page for Australia, that can only be interesting;2) a Hebrew page;3) The topics on the left side of the landing pages be in alphabetical order – my mind simply can’t ‘hook’ in or I battle to keep track and absorb information in a structured and logical fashion;4) The same goes for content, but that would be impossible to engineer;5) Local bourse financial graphs should be displayed first, then the most important bourses to the North and East, etc. It makes interpretation and trading towards the sunrise in the East much easier;6) That would apply to six timelines/timezones/latitude per 360 degrees/6 = 60 degrees;7) The latter graphs don’t really mean anything on a daily basis – a 1, 5 and 10 year graph makes much more sense.I hope this adds value.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

…further:- I have come to enjoy the Africa page, where on has a general wire and an option to click on a country. If each continent is set up that way, one may for instance click on Alabama in the US to see local news. I would as a preference read Alaska every day, as I have an interest in the environment there. Else 7 longitude zoned pages of +-50 degrees each might be good too, so that would run from Oceania/Pacific through Asia, India, Mid East, Africa, Euro/UK zone to the Americas. Just some thoughts.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

Kudos on your continued embrace of the link economy. And for your early embrace, on these shores, of Opinion …

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive

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