John Perry Barlow: The Intimate Planet. I feel as if the Global Village became real to me that night, and, indeed, it has become the Global Dinner Party. All at once. The small world has become the intimate world.
One of these days, a newspaper currently charging a premium for access to its article archives will do something bold: It will open the archives to the public -- free of charge but with keyword-based advertising at the margins.
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.
I've believed this move is necessary for newspapers for a long time. Almost three years ago, in an article for Library Journal called "Yesterday's Headlines," Rich Wiggins looked at the growing "archive digital divide," in which some people put things on the Web in a permanent way and others put them behind walls. He asked me what I thought. I replied, in part, "I have a feeling that the newspaper industry would be better served by opening up the archives and Googling them (and selling related ads based on keywords entered) than charging for individual searches."
I recognize the institutional and financial hurdles that will make it difficult to pull off in many companies today, even if they like the idea in a general sense. But I also believe it's almost inevitable.
Some major newspapers already do it. I would love to know how much the San Francisco Chronicle, which offers its archives at no charge (and loads search results with too many ads), get in revenue compared with the San Jose Mercury News, which charges for older articles.
For me, again, the heart of this issue is more about a newspaper's community role than revenue, even though I believe the right thing from the community standpoint is also the best from a financial one.
In an important recent posting on the PressThink blog, the Guardian's Simon Waldman explained "The Importance of Being Permanent" -- the notion that Web postings should have permanent, accessible Web addreses, or URLs. He wrote, in part:
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.)
Waldman pointed out that the mainstream news industry, with a very few exceptions, doesn't see things this way. The consequence of the industry's tendency to push its older journalism behind a wall, where the initial links disappear and people now have to pay for access, is a loss of identity and diminution of authority.
Jay Rosen believes journalists should demand it, since their work is being hidden from most of the world as a result of such policies (he has more on this in a posting today. As he notes, last week's Harvard conference on Blogging, Journalism & Credibility produced a surprising consensus in favor of opening archives. Maybe that's not so unexpected after all, given that almost all of people in the room were professional journalists and bloggers: "content" types. (It's easy for me, as a proud former member of what newspaper publishers call "cost centers," to advise companies to give up a certain source of revenue for a speculative one.)
There are two immediate questions for publishers. First, how much money are they making today from pay-per-view archives? The Poynter Institute's Bill Mitchell said over the weekend (on a mailing list), "The range of news orgs generating significant revenue from archives with current biz models may be more limited than I had assumed."
That's good news. It means that the financial risk of changing the model is small in many, if not most cases.
Second, and related to that, what are the benefits of shifting to an open archive? I'm utterly in Waldman's camp that it would heighten a newspaper's authority, helping keep it at the center -- or not far from there -- of the community's civic agenda.
Every newspaper of any quality has published hundreds of articles that readers can find nowhere else and which bloggers, among others, would surely cite and point to as a vital part of the permanent record of a community. These include investigative pieces, certain features and other stories. If available upon publication at a permanent URL, they quickly rise in search engine rankings, where others will find them later.
I'm convinced that increasingly sophisticated Web advertising, especially keyword-based text ads, will create a revenue stream of some size for such stories. This will be especially the case when they've moved high enough in search-engine rankings to be found without searching the newspaper's site, but that's not crucial.
A locally targeted ad based on a keyword will bring new kinds of advertisers to the newspaper: small businesses that couldn't afford to buy space in the print edition. This is new money. It may not replace what papers are losing to the online competition, but it's worth something.
Many articles won't have that broad appeal. But they will have special meaning to smaller numbers of people who will want to point to them from their personal sites. They will reinforce people's sense that the newspaper is a medium of record in their lives. That's also worth something.
If I was a publisher with a pay-per-view archive, here's what I'd do:
1) Re-publish every article in the archives with a unique URL, outside the pay-wall. It would be helpful if the articles published since the newspaper went online could have the same URLs, but don't worry if that's too expensive; if the stories are important enough, they'll be found and pointed to. It'll just take a little longer.
2) Leave every new article on the Web at the URL it had upon publication. That's easier.
3) Encourage the readers to use the archives, with house advertisements, website notices e-mail to local librarians and other ways to get out the word.
4) Let local bloggers know that you welcome their links, and that you've made the change in part because they need it, too.
5) If a local blogger points to your article, use Trackback or other such technology to point back. (But be careful of link spamming.)
I don't know if there are ways to share revenues with people who point to news articles, or if that might raise some difficult ethical questions. I do know that the archives should be open in a way that encourages cooperation with bloggers and other Web publishers, even when you're competing in other ways.
Someday soon, some paper is going to try this. It'll be a great experiment. I believe it'll be a successful one, too.
Passing through Los Angeles this morning, I bought a copy of the Orange County Register. On Page One was a huge promo to this story (reg req), which took up three inside pages.
The feature article, entitled "Real estate brought riches," tells of an immigrant family that bought a house about 13 years ago, sold it last fall for triple the purchase price and moved to Arizona with the profits to live the good life.
The family's tale, the Register said, was also "a story of wealth creation played out countless times across a county where the local median home price doubled in a mere four years to more than half-a-million bucks."
The piece disturbs me. It invites readers of modest means to throw everything into real estate and take enormous financial risks.
Maybe this is good advice. After all, California real estate has been appreciating for a long time, and in the past few years southern California prices have been absolutely soaring.
But maybe there's a housing bubble, as more and more experts worry. (I strongly believe there is a dangerous bubble in much of California.) Maybe the people who take this kind of burden on today -- at a time when a smaller percentage of households can afford a median-price home than ever and lenders are offering dangerously leveraged deals -- are going to lose everything.
There's one small cautionary element to the Register's story. It describes how the owners started borrowing against the appreciated value of the house and how that led to a worryingly higher debt load. The solution was to cash out and move to Arizona. Bingo, the lottery. Time to celebrate.
If we are in is a bubble, or even if there's a moderate correction, the newbies in this particular lottery are going to get absolutely screwed. This market may be a sucker's bet. Even a hint of that in the Register story would have been the responsible thing to do.
The president of the National Newspapers Association has written a whiny letter to Wal-Mart. Mike Buffington relates a call from a PR person who
advised me that Wal-Mart representatives were "available for interviews" about the firms nationwide campaign to "set the record straight about the facts about Wal-Mart."
In addition to co-owning and operating four community newspapers in Northeast Georgia, I also currently serve as president of the National Newspapers Association. As both a newspaper publisher and as a spokesman for several thousand community newspapers in America, I want to let you know that I, and many of my fellow publishers, are insulted by this Wal-Mart PR effort.
The letter's logic runs roughly as follows:
1) Wal-Mart is under attack for its business practices.
2) Wal-Mart wants newspapers to cover its side.
3) But Wal-Mart is grossly stingy because it does little or no newspaper advertising.
4) So if Wal-Mart wants coverage it should buy advertisements.
I'm not a fan of Wal-Mart. I refuse to shop there specifically because of its business practices, and I found its recent newspaper ad campaign (which ignored the smaller papers Buffington is trying to defend) almost totally unpersuasive.
(To see the company's press release, go to this page, click on News Releases, then General News and the release titled, "Wal-Mart Launches Nationwide Campaign to Set the Record Straight." For reasons I can't fathom, Wal-Mart's site offers up on-the-fly Java server pages that make it impossible to link directly to the release.)
But Buffington may not have realized how insulting his letter is to the people who do journalism -- and to his customers. This letter strongly implies a "you pay or we don't cover you" attitude. What he calls "free PR" is nothing of the kind. It's one part of a story, and it's worth covering no matter who puts the ads in the paper.
The public is already skeptical of newspaper publishers' motives. It's hard enough to be a reporter these days, but letters like this one give credence to people's more cynical assumptions.
The issue here isn't news vs. advertising; it's simply an attempt to manipulate PR in community newspapers.
At the corporate level, Wal-Mart has made it clear that it does not see value in advertising in community newspapers. Can't argue with that, it's their money and they've been successful without us.
But to take that attitude, then expect community newspapers to be a free tool in a political PR campaign, smacks of corporate arrogance.
Wal-Mart could have bought 3 page ads in our newspaper and I still wouldn't run their PR stuff. It isn't relevant to our market. And I can't be bought, period.
But ask yourself this: Wal-Mart did buy page ads in major metro newspapers across the nation with their PR message and many of those newspapers did write high-profile news articles about the firm's PR campaign.
Was there a tacit link between those news stories in metro newspapers and the Wal-Mart ads?
Probably not, but it's interesting that Wal-Mart paid to run its message in those urban markets, many of which don't have Wal-Mart stores in their core area, but they didn't see value in running the ad in suburban and rural markets, the heartland of their company.
Why was that?
My theory is that this PR campaign is really about Corporate America talking to Corporate America. The goal isn't to communicate with Wal-Mart customers in the rural and suburban areas stores are located, but rather to sell their PR to opinion-makers at the state and corporate levels. Talking with customers is, I think, a secondary consideration.
That's fine, but the company shouldn't have insulted community newspapers in the process. Don't go to the metro areas and buy advertising in big corporate newspapers, but expect mom-and-pop newspapers to dish out the same stuff as free PR. We have higher standards than that.
Perhaps Wal-Mart didn't intend to send such an arrogant message, but it did. And frankly, I don't think very many community newspaper publishers in America have much respect for a firm that looks down its corporate nose at our profession.
Carson also represented the golden age of America's shared experience in media. That era lasted about three decades, from the late '50s to the late '80s, when the three networks turned most cities into one-newspaper towns and we all watched the same thing. I don't regret that era dying; it means we now have more choice and choice equals control. But it was a unique time in our culture, when popular culture became a common platform, a common touchstone for Americans.
Frank Rich (NY Times): On Television, Torture Takes a Holiday. But a not-so-funny thing happened to the Graner case on its way to trial. Since the early bombshells from Abu Ghraib last year, the torture story has all but vanished from television, even as there have been continued revelations in the major newspapers and magazines like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair. If a story isn't on TV in America, it doesn't exist in our culture.
America's descent into a political, tactical and moral swamp -- our use and tacit approval of torture -- will someday be seen as a stain on our national honor. (Never mind that it's basically counterproductive.) Television news' abandonment of this story will be seen as a stain on a once-serious part of the press.
It's not as if this matter is closed. The show trials of people -- who are plainly guilty -- low on the command chain look as much like a coverup as an attempt to get to the truth. And the Bush administration is doing everything it can to keep its options wide open. In confirmation hearings, attorney general designate Alberto Gonzales disclaimed torture but remained infinitely vague about what kinds of interrogation are beyond the pale -- and, of course, most of the spineless Democrats and who-cares Republicans refused to pin him down. This was in keeping with the administration's ongoing strategy on this issue: Use methods that amount to torture, rationalize it with Orwellian language that calls it something else and then insist that torture is wrong.
Some newspapers and magazines have stayed on the story, as Rich notes, and they deserve great credit for sticking with an issue that obviously makes Americans uncomfortable, as it should. This is a situation that demands a swarm of blogging outrage as well.
Bloggers of various political persuasions have shown their ability to keep alive stories that the major media found insufficiently newsworthy. The right-wing bloggers are on the Bush administration's side on this issue, for the most part. I'm sorry about that, because our practices should be anathema across the spectrum. (South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former military lawyer, has been an exception (Frontline interview) to the lockstep fealty of Bush supporters.)
I hope bloggers in the center and on the left will stay on this. They need to be as relentless about a continuing scandal as the RatherGate folks were in exposing CBS News' shoddy journalism. TV's willful failures, once again, are the blogosphere's opportunity.
I got on what must have been one of the last flights out of Boston last night. After not being able to go through Chicago back to California, due to Midwest storms, I was booked on an evening nonstop to San Francisco. I noticed a flight leaving for San Diego about 90 minutes earlier and asked to be put on that one, which the airline did. Turned out that the San Francisco flight got canceled.
An inexpensive overnight stay (I'm turning into a big fan of the Hotwire service, which has been a reliable way to get decent hotel rooms for a low price) in San Diego and a commuter plane hop to LAX, I'm waiting for my connection back to San Francisco. I'll be home by 10:30 this morning, and happy to be there.
I frequently tell people how much I miss the seasons in New England. But I don't miss blizzards like the one they're having in Boston today.
In other circumstances I'd be grumpy about this detour and overnight layover. Right now I'm feeling lucky.