Erasing History

One of my favorite “hobbies” (it’s in quotes because they pay me) is writing for Intellectual Capital concerning the intersection of the Internet and politics.

I call it a hobby because I don’t pretend to be a politician. I don’t represent an interest group. I even lack experience as a political reporter. So I try to be very careful and document what I write. My work there is filled with links – to interest groups, to news stories, to the source of any fact I feel unclear on.

But as time goes by, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to verify my statements due to a basic Cluelessness within the newspaper industry. It’s a Cluelessness I feel may be fatal.

Not only are newspapers reluctant to provide links within their stories (for fear the audience will leave the site), but most take down stories after only a few days. This means they not only frustrate outgoing links, but incoming links as well.

For the newspaper industry, in other words, the basic technology of this medium doesn’t exist. This means that, as the Internet becomes the public record of our time, more and more of that record is being routinely lost.

Brewster Kahle, who long, long ago founded a search system called WAIS, saves lots of old sites through his effort. Thanks to Kahle, for instance, you can still access the popular Bob Dole ’96 parody, which called him “The Ripe Man for the Job.”

That won’t work here, because the newspapers are actually just taking their morgues behind their firewalls so they can sell them. Files are removed, or routinely renamed, so links expire as soon as they’re coded. Newspapers persist in this behavior despite the market failure of all their efforts to sell old stories.

Looking for yesterday’s newspaper can be both frustrating and expensive.

Northern Light has worked to make a business in searching paid media. They have many newspaper morgues in their collection, often at $3 per article. But there is no single source you can go to for this stuff, and you can’t link to it – only download it for personal use when you find it.

The NewsLibrary has a few dozen newspapers in its morgue, and the Library of Congress can find some more.

Many newspapers, like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, maintain their own paid morgues, but web-only copy from these papers often disappears forever.

In other words, not only are most news stories lost forever after a few days, there’s not even a single source in which to find them. When you consider how common web research has become (“doing a Yahoo” has become a common term meaning to look for something online), you begin to see the magnitude of what’s taking place.

Everything that happens today is accessible online. You can even get many Wall Street Journal stories through and papers that get its wires. But much of it – the reliable, working stuff of history – will routinely be gone tomorrow. Don’t link to it, because that link won’t exist in a few days. If you capture a good story and provide a link to it from within your server, you’re breaking the law.

When they write the obituary of the newspaper industry – and it’s coming – link to this story from the gravestone.

Related reading