Saving the Past With Links

Old media has never understood the Net. In fact, newspapers resent it.

As Jon Katz points out in his fine new book “Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho,” the Web’s transforming power is in the hands of “The Other,” outcasts whose knowledge and obsessive work habits demand that media conform to the information policies scientists love best.

Among scientists and engineers, knowledge is freely exchanged, invested in other people in order to grow the whole. Questions of money or law are distractions, anachronisms — roadblocks that exist to be gotten around.

This medium is the pure expression of the Geek imperative. Gatekeepers hate that imperative because they can’t control it. But they can defy it. They can “monetize” it, they can warn children and their parents to stay away from it, they can even legislate controls on who can see what.

But the most effective tool of the media is to simply make links, and therefore the past, disappear. Media companies have done this routinely since the Web was spun. You can’t write a link to a story under www.wsj.com because it’s behind a firewall, guarded by a tollbooth. You can’t link to stories in most daily newspapers, either, or those from wire services, because they’re simply taken down after a few days.

By removing stories from their sites, newspapers seek the old advantages inherent in their morgues. A newspaper morgue is a big, secret profit center at most newspapers. Old stories are cataloged by hand, and readers are charged hard currency to see copies of the stories. Free access to the morgue is considered one of the big benefits of working at a newspaper.

On the Net, of course, there is no real incremental cost to a morgue. Stories are cataloged and indexed instantly, storage is practically free (the price drops constantly), and stories can be retrieved at a mouse click. Yet the stories are still kept behind firewalls, with access sold for several dollars per story or by subscription. (The New York Times is moving toward a subscription model for its morgue, which will be accessed from libraries.)

Every Web page, however, has real economic value. Content can be served along with contemporary ads. Those ads can be targeted based on what’s on the page or who the reader happens to be. Special offers can be added to earn affiliate dollars. All the top media sites do these things already — I discussed them on February 7.

The value of this advertising, multiplied by the number of students who might visit an old story if it were available and by the number who might come in by links if the links kept working — is certain to exceed the $4-per-read charge now being applied. Even if the figures are close, the social value of having content available is supposed to be what newspapers and other media companies are about. Or is it?

Like all skeptics, I wonder sometimes. I know that newspapers and wire services are businesses that must make a profit to survive. But newspapers that adapt to the Net will thrive, while those that resist it will die. There is no doubt that fear and loathing of the future is the equivalent of a death wish for many companies. How many newspapers will be on that dead list?

Time will tell. The good news in a recession is that it won’t be much time.

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