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January 7, 2005

Guest Writer Simon Waldman: The Importance of Being Permanent

The Guardian's Web guy: "Without permanence you slip off the search engines. Without permanence, bold ideas like 'news as conversation' fall away, because you're shutting down the conversation before it has barely started. Without permanence, you might be on the web, but you're certainly not part of it."

I met Simon Waldman (who blogs here) when he came through New York a few months ago on a kind of study tour of the States. We had a chance to talk journalism and its Web philosophy, and that talk led to the piece below. He’s management now, the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian Newspapers. I add my own commentary at the end.

Special to PressThink

The Importance of Being Permanent

By Simon Waldman
Director of Digital Publishing, The Guardian (UK)

Ask anyone in a traditional news organization to name the most important characteristics of the Net, and you can pretty much guarantee that the answer will include the words “immediacy” or “interactivity.”

They are the two big shiny baubles that grab everyone’s attention. Most of the ideas, debates and screaming arguments that happen within media organizations are about how to manage these two—immediacy, interactivity—alongside a traditional business.

But there is another feature of the Net that gets a fraction of the attention of these two. It is less glamorous, less obvious, but in the long term it is going to be at least as important to understand, if not more so.


Permanence means understanding that when you put something on the Web it should be there for ever: ideally in the same place for perpetuity. It means that if I link to it now, someone else can follow that link in two days, two weeks or two years’ time. (I’m not going to lay out the business models in this piece, but I’m not excluding the possibility of pay-to-view; it’s the position that counts, not the price.)

This is an alien concept to many people in the news industry, which creates work designed to appear in a particular place at a particular time. But permanence is critical to understanding the real challenges and potential for online publishing.

The Web is the first medium where the publisher can put something in a place that it can be found forever. Other media can provide immediacy, and to varying degrees, some level of interactivity. But no other medium can be permanent in the same way as the Web (other media depend entirely on the consumer to archive: something completely different).

The problem is that we are often so wrapped up in the immediacy of what we’re doing online that the issue of permanence is easily (and, in the heat of the moment, understandably) forgotten or ignored.

Many news organizations, for example, are currently doing great journalism in covering the tsunami and its fall out. But who is creating work that in 12 months’ time will a.) be easily found and b.) make sense of the story as a whole?

Enter new competition from Wikipedia. Much of the debate about Wikipedia, has been about the merits or de-merits of how it is created. And yes, there is plenty to talk about there. (See this and that.) But, perhaps its most remarkable achievement has been to create a live—and permanent—record of major events that manages to keep up with the news without becoming a slave to it.

Its entry on 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake, for example, fits both of the above criteria in a way that few news organization’s work ever will. It has better content— and, being permanent, it pops up near the top of Google search for tsunami. (I’m under strict orders from the editor not to flagrantly plug the Guardian here, but I think we’ll do pretty well also.)

See their entries on Hurricane Frances or the Ukraine presidential elections for similar treatments of recent major events, These have a longevity way beyond almost anything produced by traditional media.

Why does this matter? Why should you want today’s news to be read in 12 months time when everyone will be focused on the next disaster, explosion or election?

It’s important for a number of reasons, but they all move in the same direction: permanence is about ensuring you have a real presence on the Net. It is a critical part of having a distinctive identity in an increasingly homogenous landscape. It is about becoming an authority and a point of reference for debate. It is about everything we want and need to be.

Without permanence you slip off the search engines. Without permanence, bold ideas like “news as conversation” fall away, because you’re shutting down the conversation before it has barely started. Without permanence, you might be on the web, but you’re certainly not part of it.

Here’s another example. Think of all the millions of words written by news organizations around the world about Abu Ghraib during 2004. Now go to Google and search (as suggested in the Wired article above) for Abu Ghraib, and you will find only a handful of traditional media outlets mentioned in the first few pages (fortunately, the Guardian is one). This isn’t just a quirk in Google’s search algorithm; this is about traditional media ceding responsibility for providing the definitive, permanent record of major events.

All that reporting effort, all that insight and expertise, all those contacts: now completely invisible to the millions who decide to use Google as their first and final tool for researching.

Chris Anderson’s influential essay, The Long Tail (now a blog and forthcoming book) explains how in a world without the traditional physical restrictions of high street space, online retailers can offer vast and diverse repertoires, brought to life through recommendation systems and other links. They still need their best sellers, but the future success of their businesses really depends on the long tail.

The same is true for news sites. Freed from the physical restrictions of print, now is the time to see our Web operations not simply as the place for today’s news: but as the repository for everything we have ever done. Yes, we need big breaking news, but it’s the long tail of your content accumulated over time that makes you distinctive and lets you stand out.

And while retailers have to build elaborate recommendation engines, the benefit of having newspaper content is that others will often do the linking and recommending for you. The easiest way for you to join the conversation is to allow yourself to become the focus of it. Immediacy and breaking news are critical: but too often the results lead to homogeneity. Look at any story on Google News (something that, tragically, many of our readers do several times a day) and follow the links to news organizations around the world. The chances are you will see the same wire stories repeated hundreds of times over with at best minor adjustments.

Over time however, it is our truly distinctive and original content that comes to the fore. It is this that is linked to and discussed and then appears on search engines. And it is this that gives us a real identity.

Anderson’s essay is, in itself, an example. It first appeared nearly four months ago, but it is still resonating around the web. As I write this, it has some 545 links according to Technorati, 15 in the last 24 hours alone. I used the epithet “influential” to describe it and that influence is partly down to the quality of the idea, and the place it originally appeared. But the permanence of the Web is also at work. Every day, more people are finding it. Every day it’s value is increasing as a result.

Similarly, take that most ephemeral of events: a speech. In this case Tom Curley of the AP to the Online News Association in November, which was put on a site, given permanence, and is again gaining intellectual capital by the day as more and more people link to it and debate it.

Web permanence is, I’d argue, one of the main things that journalists can learn from the more successful bloggers. The whole concept of the permalink allows blog posts to become part of the Web in the way that very few traditional media owners stories do. This is why they get linked to and why they often come to the top of search results.

My personal experience: 18 months after I posted something on a (now deceased) personal blog about the decision between an iRiver and iPod, and comments are still being added because the post has made its way to near the top of a relevant Google search.

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.

I’m not pretending it’s easy. I’m not pretending that we at the Guardian have all the answers (or anyone else for that matter). The point is that making the “long tail” of our content accessible and available in the most engaging, useful and—let’s not forget—profitable way is a major challenge for the smartest editorial, technical and commercial minds. They ignore it at their peril.

“It had better links.” Jay Rosen comments:

In my opinion, Simon Waldman is one of the more important people in Web journalism today because The Guardian’s online edition is such a leading site. It not only looks better than just about any daily newspaper site; it is, among major newspapers in the Anglo-American field, the most Web-friendly. One could list reasons. But the biggest reason is also the simplest: The Guardian is striving not to be “on” the Web, but of it. (Yet it’s also a business.)

That “of the Web” part has to come from Waldman, who’s just a guy—30s, reasonably hip—trying to feel his way to something journalistically sound but differently constructed on the new platform. The solution to how you do serious news and commentary on the Read/Write Web (a term I am starting to appreciate more and more) is not known to anyone. What we know is: some are actively trying to figure it out, and to meet high editorial standards.

The Guardian is one. It has gotten into blogging in a careful but effective way. (I have been telling my readers about another one, a local newspaper in North Carolina that is going open source.) From the moment I started my weblog I noticed The Guardian standing out from the pack of news peddlers online. It had better links.

If you linked to the Los Angeles Times, your link would be dead in a week or two, as the content moved, in some grindingly mechanical fashion, off the “free” site, into an closed and gated archive, with tolls, thereby removing the journalism part from circulation on the Read/Write web, which means removing it from Google, from active cultural memory, and interrupting the very patterns by which value is added to a piece of journalism— post-publication, online, because of how the web works. I once tried to capture it this way:

In journalism the regular way, we imagine the public record accumulating with each day’s news— becoming longer. In journalism the weblog way, we imagine the public record “tightening,” its web becoming stronger, as links promotes linking, which produces more links.

It is the current policy of most American newspapers to be anti-Web in the key matters of linking out and permitting deep-linked content through stable and reliable url’s. This policy is, in my view, wrong-headed. It was done to get revenues from the archive. There was a business reason. No one was trying to be anti-Web. They just ended up that way by trying to collect revenues from a “closed” archive.

But being closed cannot be the way forward for journalists, and so they have to involve themselves in the business of linking.

I think it shameful, not to mention a crisis in authority, that the solid journalistic achievement of most people in daily newspapers across the land is being lost to Google, lost to bloggers, lost to online forums and conversation, lost to the long tail where value is built up.

Does your average hard working environment reporter even know that her comprehensive portrait of an ecological disaster in the making won’t ever make it into search engines so that people can see where it all began, so that high school kids researching an assignment would find it and get the whole story? Do the newsroom troops understand this “lost to the future” quality about their best work? Who was supposed to tell them? (See this.)

Being “of” the Web, the way I mean it, has nothing whatsoever to do with how many blogs you start. It’s more basic things like the nature of authority online, why search is important, what “openness” truly means, what creates new value online. Blogs are important because they teach you about Web fundamentals. If you do them you will find it easier to be “of” the Web.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

On the parallel universe of the press: The Guardian asks the people who run Britain what they think of journalists. (Jan. 10)

Increasingly, as you talk to politicians and officials and executives about how their trades and the journalism about them meet each other, they talk of parallel universes. That is, there is what they do and how they do it: and then there is the journalism about what they do and how they do it: and they exist quite separately from each other. The journalism partakes of the field of action apparently described: and some of the characters exist and some of the events are recognisable. But as a description of what really happens, it’s deeply inadequate - or so say the politicians and the corporate executives and the trade union leaders and the bishops and the heads of NGOs and the generals and the top civil servants and the council leaders and the ministers and even the academics.

The observations of “the people who run Britain” are non-hysterical, deeply critical and apt. See this part too.

In the comments thread, Jakob Nielsen writes:

I write an online column on Web usability (the Alertbox), and my traffic statistics show that the articles typically gather about 80% of their lifetime readership after they have passed into the archives, confirming the value of permanent content and of avoiding linkrot.

In fact, this very link to the “linkrot” column is an example of the value of permanent content, since the article was written in 1998. Seven years old content? Still relevant. (And by the way, the top hit on Google for the query term linkrot.)

Threadwatch, an Internet marketing blog, reads Waldman’s piece and says to its constituency (the people who claim to improve your Google rankings): Watch your backs - the Press are starting to Get It. “In so many areas of the web we as web devs have really had rather an easy ride with only other web devs to really compete with. Now, just because Simon is starting to get it doesn’t mean that our nice little cash cow is going to run dry tomorrow, but it sure will be tougher as time passes by.”

Robert Andrews on permanence and news: “Say I’m planning a trip this weekend and will be taking a route involving a road I’ve never travelled before. A newspaper in that area might have run a story every one of the last four years about how that road is prone to rockfalls, one of which killed a driver there last year. Each of these stories will exist in the searchable archive, that’s a given, but it’s only their linking together (and perhaps their linking together with similar stories elsewhere) that would provide value to me as a driver (ie. not the odd isolated incident, but a trend).”

Dave Pell, who was on my Recommended list before this, had two weblogs and only wanted one. So he found a subject midway between, merged the look of one, electablog, into the (already similar) look of another, davenetics, and came up with a third, the blog blog…. Also called: “The Beta Blog,” (I think he means meta.) “A blog about blogs, blogging and bloggers. Welcome to the front row of the personal publishing revolution.” I hope you type fast, Pell. There’s a lot going on these days.

According to the New York Review of Magazines:

The Guardian is Britain’s third-largest high-end broadsheet. It sets the standard for coverage not only of politics but also the arts, literature and history. It is also the quintessential independent paper. Operating under the philanthropic Scott Trust set up in 1936 by the Manchester family, the Guardian is known for its dedication to high journalistic standards. That hasn’t stopped the business from growing. The Guardian Media Group now owns a national radio station; daily, weekly and Sunday papers, including the prestigious weekly Observer; a Web site; and a group of classified magazines.”

Forty percent of The Guardian’s online readers are in the US (January 04 study.)

Online Journalism Review, Sep. 2003: The Guardian of the Web. Feature on the newspaper’s Web strategy.

Rogers Cadenhead, The Guardian hammers RSS. Cadenhead’s take on a disputed article.

My italics. Simon Waldman at his weblog: “Gizmodo gets handed an interview with Bill Gates. Good for them, I say - and a smart move by Microsoft. Now here’s a big challenge to traditional media: yes, anyone can run a blog and call themselves a reporter, but ‘access’ is operated almost on a cartel basis. The ability to bag the big names is one of the things that keeps big media big. If that moves, everything moves.”

Evan Cornog, publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, asks: is it possible to do great journalism if the public does not care?

So much of the thinking about this in the world of journalism… is done from the perspective of the flaws of journalism as currently practiced. And so it should be, because such flaws abound, from the cutbacks in foreign bureaus to the commercialization of news to the high-profile crimes of a few journalistic fabricators. But perhaps the problem, and therefore the solution, has broader and deeper roots. Perhaps we should, to an extent, blame the readers. Perhaps the old notions of an engaged and virtuous citizenry, upon which the founding fathers’ hopes for the republic were based, are archaic concepts.

Mitch Ratcliffe: “The point of innovation in media is to expand, not simply to displace, the voices that existed before (politics is what replaces voices). I’m feeling more Buddhist all the time about this whole journalism v. blogging debate. The middle way in the metalogue that is emerging—the miraculous opening up of “the media” that’s going on—is plenty wide for all sorts of writing, the objective, the disclosed and the personal.”

This is a very thorough portrait of the New York Times Company and prospects from Business Week. It includes this quote: “The Roman Empire that was mass media is breaking up, and we are entering an almost-feudal period where there will be many more centers of power and influence,” says Orville Schell, dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s journalism school. “It’s a kind of disaggregation of the molecular structure of the media.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 7, 2005 1:08 PM