Permanence and the web

May 20, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: news web sites.

Permanence is one of the five most important characteristics of the web (the other four being capacity, immediacy, flexibility, and interactivity), as explained in chapter 1 of Web Journalism. Until now, it has not been the subject of much discussion. But a high-level conference on blogging and journalism at Harvard University last week has spurred thinking about one part of the idea of permanence – archiving.

Many major news organizations, beginning with the New York Times, charge for accessing files that are more than a week or two old. Placing these files behind a tollgate has some important implications for the web and the activities that it has engendered.

The great beauty of the web (among other things) is that it does not deteriorate. Electronic storage is far more stable than print, pictures, videotape or audiotape. It is less susceptible to environmental conditions. What goes onto the web can stay there.

That’s not to say we haven’t lost much that has been placed on the web. We have – far too much of it. But we have lost material not because of the instability of the web but because of operator error. We have not done a good job at storing it, or we have simply deleted it.

The fact that the web is (or can be) permanent has two important meanings. First, it means we can retrieve material stored on the web. Second, it means we can duplicate that material. But when a site requires registration (which most people see as not a huge problem) or charges for that material, our ability to retrieve and duplicate is hindered or destroyed.

The tollgate for web archives is particularly difficult for the act of blogging, which is developing as major way of using the web. Web loggers pick up information they see on the web, discuss it, and pass it on. A discussion begun this way may last for several weeks, if not longer. However, if the article that generated that discussion goes into a tollgated archive after a week, it is cut off from all except those willing to pay. (A couple of nifty terms are used to describe what happens here: linkdeath and linkrot.)

Charging for articles inhibits the strength of the permanency characteristic of the web, and there are some powerful arguments against it. Some of those have been advanced by Simon Waldman, head of the Guardian’s online division (the Guardian is a newspaper in London) and Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University. They both call for “open archives” because (among other reasons)

closing archives takes the information out of the public discussion

closing archives diminishes the web site’s presence on the web and its ability to be part of the ongoing discussion of an issue.

According to Waldman:

What makes great news organizations great is not simply the work they do on a given day, but the accumulated quality of work done over weeks, months and years. For the first time, it can be available in one place: permanently. To neglect this is to go into battle with one arm tied behind your back.

In addition to these reasons, there are others that could be advanced for open archives:

Journalism has always been accused of being too episodic; that is, we have little sense of the past, even the recent past. We report stories on a daily basis as if this is the first time such an event has ever occurred. Giving readers the ability to reach back to previous stories about the same subject or similar events could show connects and help further their understanding of the things we report.

Giving information away at one point (a free news web site, as most are) and then charging for it at a later point does not, on the face of it, make a lot of sense.

Achieved information can be obtained free of charge even when a web site is charging for it. A consumer can simply go to a good library. So why make it so inconvenient?

The answer, of course, is money. While there is not much information about how much money archive sales mean for a news organization, there is no doubt that the income-to-cost ratio is very high. The money taken in is mostly profit, and news organizations see no reason to give it up.

Alex Jones, director, of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard and co-author, with Susan Tifft, The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times, wrote this response after the Harvard conference had ended:

Open archives is a great idea! It makes moral and professional sense. But it also has great potential for building audience, especially at newspapers. All it would take is a successful experiment at a couple of respected newspapers that show the income from selling reprints could be matched or exceeded from advertising at a newspaper’s “old news” web site and from special services (for instance, tapping the desire for a momento by selling framed photocopies of actual clips). Result: win-win-win.

But for now, many news organizations have chosen the first “win” and ignored the possibilities of the two others.

Jim Stovall (posted Jan. 30, 2005; minor corrections, Jan. 25, 2010)

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