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January 28, 2005

Will the Greensboro Newspaper Open Its Archive?

Bill Mitchell of Poynter: "I don't know what your chances are of winning this one, but it sure is worth exploring." Editor in Greensboro: "As the decision makers see the traffic and better understand the potential, the argument over free archives will be easier to win."

First Simon Waldman, head of the Guardian’s online division, wrote The Importance of Being Permanent, laying out the case for a neglected value in journalism: the permanent record, with urls that don’t die or change (Jan. 7):

“It is about becoming an authority and a point of reference for debate.”

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.

I recently (Jan. 23) followed that up with:

“Open archive, permanent url’s, free public access.”

The key issue to watch—the signal for a big switch in philosophy—is the archive policy. My suggestion: Open archive, permanent url’s, free public access, make your money off smart advertising keyed to search, plus added-value services that make sophisticated use of the data in the archive, which you know better than anyone else because you own it and you created it.

News organizations, once they grasp Waldman’s argument about content accumulating in value on the Web, will figure out how to do journalism so as to continually improve the (future) value of the open archive. A simple example would be: if you make an effort to always do the bios of the key actors when you have any sort of newsmaking public controversy, then you are always building your public actor bio file, and new products may emerge from that.

Dan Gillmor of Grassroots Media, who departed Jan. 1 from the San Jose Mercury News, sharpened the argument (a lot) and called for change (Jan. 24): Newspapers Open Your Archive:

“The newspaper will have boosted its long-term place in the community.”

I predict that the result will pleasantly surprise the bean-counters. There’ll be a huge increase in traffic at first, once people realize they can read their local history without paying a fee. Eventually, though not instantly, the revenues will greatly exceed what the paper had been earning under the old system. Meanwhile, the expenses to run it will drop.

And, perhaps most important, the newspaper will have boosted its long-term place in the community. It will be seen, more than ever, as the authoritative place to go for some kinds of news and information — because it will have become an information bedrock in this too-transient culture.

As I reported earlier this week, during the recent Harvard gathering of Big Wigs in blogging and journalism (which is savaged here) others began to see the logic of it. Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, was one. He said (Jan. 26):

“Result: win-win-win.”

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.

“It makes moral sense.” I like that. Bill Mitchell, director of publishing and editor of Poynter Online, formerly director of electronic publishing at the San Jose Mercury News (Jan. 26) said the case against opening the archive wasn’t as strong as he initially thought:

“Sure is worth exploring.”

Given the importance of keeping well-reported journalism freely available — and given the possibility of some new ways of generating revenue from archives—maybe a new approach would work. I don’t know what your chances are of winning this one, Jay, but it sure is worth exploring. My going-in thinking: Unlikely that news organizations would ever give up this revenue stream.

Early re-thinking, based on just a bit of reporting while snowed in Sunday: The range of news organizations generating significant revenue from archives with current business models may be more limited than I had assumed.

Revenue may be less than I assumed. Hmmm. I wonder where that data actually resides. And why can’t we have it? If you have a suggestion, blog about it.

Want an example of a piece of content on the Web ruined by link death? I have my own right here. Read the first sentence and spot the dead link. That’s unbuilding the Web, sponsored by the Tribune Company. Here I am arguing with Tim Rutten, who works for the Los Angeles Times, who can no longer be “reached” by my readers. I’m trying to have a conversation with that entity, the LA Times (and push traffic its way.) The gated archive frequently makes that impossible: by design.

But if news as conversation catches on—not as a new religion, but as an idea worth a try somewhere—the gated archive can be questioned. “What do you lose by not opening it up?” will come on the table.

Certainly there are some good arguments for permanence and for the free, open, deep-linkable local newspaper archive. Whoever would develop them by blogging further about it, send me the link.

As Bill Mitchell suggested, maybe the gated archive isn’t such a money maker. Who knows how to investigate that, and will?

The way you test the open archive is you open an archive somewhere, and see what happens. Has this been done? What happened? Someone out there knows.

What seems “logical,” even compelling as an idea (open your archives!) may fall apart on contact with the particulars of a given news organization, its town and circulation area, its IT system, its ownership— the business of it all. But someone has to pull the switch, so we can find out.

“We have not made a decision, and, unfortunately, it’s not a decision I control.” That’s what John Robinson, the blogging editor of the Greensboro News Record, told me today when I asked him about the archive (Jan. 28). The bosses at Landmark Communications, owner of the newspaper, have to make that call. He did elaborate:

“We’re not normally in the business of leaving money on the table.”

The archives produce revenue, and we’re not normally in the business of leaving money on the table, particularly in these tight times. The challenge, of course, is to persuade others to recognize the long-term value of opening the archives. I guarantee I’ll use Gillmor’s recent post. I do think that as we build the rest of the site and create a place of citizen journalism—and as the decision makers see the traffic and better understand the potential—the argument over free archives will be easier to win.

Robinson’s last point seems crucial. The free and permanent archive argument will become easier to win if there is traffic, energy, buzz, and true citizen involvement at the revamped version of, which Robinson and company are working on now. That’s up to them in Greensboro.

But Robinson said it: arguments matter too. And those don’t have to be woven in Greensboro.

I would think that librarians would be intensely interested in this issue: newspapers moving from gated and chaotic archives to standard, stable, open and free. Perhaps librarians—especially, the blogging ones—have a role in imagining and describing the benefits of Gillmor’s call to newspapers.

But beyond that, maybe I’m wrong in my guess and Dan Gillmor is wrong in his prediction, and there isn’t money to be made by going free and open. Maybe it should be a non-profit resource, like a donation. Or perhaps the public libraries are plausible partners in the archive itself.

After all, this is about public memory, not just the newspaper business.

After Matter: Notes, reactions, links…

Mark Glaser pulls it all together at Online Journalism Review. Pay or Free?“Newspaper Archives Not Ready for Open Web…Yet.” The most fact-filled piece we have. He mentions many of those quoted here.

Martin Nisenholtz, the dean of online publishers as CEO of New York Times Digital, says there are two main reasons charges for most of its archives: The marketplace has already valued the content to be worth much more, and there’s no way to recoup that value through paid-search ads (such as Google AdWords) or even display advertising.

PressThink, Oct. 3, 2003: Times Web Editor Goes to Harvard in Search of Something.

There was one almost poignant moment during the question and answer period. Someone stood up and asked will the New York Times open its archive to free linking? (The original url’s expire after seven days for most articles, then you have to pay.) This appeared to catch Apcar off guard….

What the crowd was really saying, however, cut deeper: Don’t you understand? We want to link to you, mighty New York Times, and give everything you publish more and more Web life. For this, the Rule of Links, is the way of our tribe, said conference host Dave Winer, who wrote the rule. But because of your foolish and short-sighted archive policy, our efforts die after a week. Why, why are you causing all this needless link death?

John Robinson (Feb. 1) on needless link death at the News & Record site:

The bad news is that when we get the new publishing system, which now appears to be in early March, all the old links will rot. Once we pass that milestone, though, all subsequent links to pages created within the new system will remain connected forever.

Yes, the archives issue is still out there, I know. We’re taking small steps.

Greensboro blogger Dave Hoggard reacts: “Landmark’s apparent hesitance is puzzling, especially in light of the fact that several year’s worth of N&R content is currently available for free to anyone who has a Greensboro library card.”

Ed Cone: “The N&R’s current archive system is terrible — links rot and then you really have to hunt for a story in order to buy it.” See also Cone’s reflections on hype and reality. “Is Greensboro changing the face of journalism as we know it, and doing it yesterday? No. The real world doesn’t work that way.”

John Robinson at his blog the next day: “Many of you are business people, and you know the way business people think. The archives generate decent money. Why is a business person going to give that up? Yes, I know all the reasons. As the new content, higher page views and buzz hits critical mass, things will move along. Give some of us time to get there.”

He’s right; there’s time.

Free Range Librarian (Karen Schneider) responds with: Let the Walls Come Tumbling Down. “Don’t you love it when some other, flossier, higher-profile profession rediscovers something we’ve been saying among ourselves for ages, and gives it due time in the press?”

Cory Doctorow: “If the NYT can’t make it on advertising alone, it might just be dead in the long run, since these substitutable goods that require no subscription will crowd it out of the market eventually. But if it wants to try a subscription-based system, then for heaven’s sake, why not charge money for the news (which lots of people want to pay for!) and give away the history (which relatively few people want to buy)?”

At lbr (a blog about virtual reference for librarians by request) Luke Rosenberger: Newspaper archives and the “last mile” for OpenURL: “OpenURL grew out of a problem in scholarly publishing that’s a lot like the problem that Dan and Cory describe for bloggers and online journalists.”

Adrian Holovaty on reasons for the free archive: “Forget monetization, forget maintaining newspapers’ authority, forget being higher than competitors in search rankings. Journalism exists, in its golden ideal, to spread truth and give people information that helps their lives. Journalists should advance that cause as far as possible.”

An Online Rescue for Newpapers? Rick Edmonds runs the numbers on the newspaper econonmy: “On balance, the online rescue scenario doesn’t add up just yet. But neither is the industry snoozing through an era where the commercial and editorial potential of the medium has become both obvious and critical.” Detailed and useful analysis.


Q: Is journalism something Craigslist might pursue?

Craig Newmark: We may do something along the lines of citizen journalism. We don’t know what that will be yet.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 28, 2005 11:30 PM