Saturday, June 6, 2009

The failed promise of digital content – Part 3: Newspapers and magazines

As our society rushes to a future where newspapers and magazines are only available in digital form, a number of troubling issues have arisen.
These print publications were always a stable resource for finding information on a host of historical and cultural events and subjects. In particular, newspapers were considered the news source of record. For instance, local newspapers were the place that recorded such things as birth, wedding and death notices.
In their physical form they were suitable for archiving either in hardbound volumes or on microfilm or microfiche. More recently newspapers have been storing their articles, photos and graphics digitally and making them available either for free, to paying subscribers, or for a per-article fee.

Nothing’s permanent on the Web

But since nothing’s permanent on the Web, I’m concerned about access to such information in the future.
Who’s going to store that information?
Will it be available for years to come, if not forever?
Will it be locked in virtual vaults you have to pay to access?
What happens to that information when newspapers and magazines go out of business? (A worrisome trend of late.)
And what role will libraries play in providing access to that information as a public service?

Print media transition to the Web

Then there’s the issue of how news coverage might change in the transition from print publications to Web sites.
Will the number of professional journalists decline and affect the quality of news reporting?
Will traditional newspaper companies abandon coverage of news of record and leave those for other, perhaps niche Web sites?
I can envision wedding notices being taken over by services like The Knot; anniversaries and birth notices being picked up by other services with products to sell; and death notices being handled by or individual funeral homes.
How trustworthy are those sources for archiving information?
Not very.
When I got married in 2001, we had an engagement and wedding page on But that’s long gone now. As a public company, The Knot has no interest in saving those pages for archival purposes. Once you’re married, you are of no use to them because they can’t sell you honeymoon trips or things for your wedding any more. can set up a memorial page for a deceased loved one, but it will cost you.

Wither cover stories?

Magazines today have a lot of clout when it comes to getting interviews with prominent business leaders, celebrities and other public figures. That’s because they can offer cover stories with photos and feature stories on rich, glossy paper.
But what happens when those dead tree editions give way to digital only magazines? Will magazines have the same clout?
Time, Newsweek, BusinessWeek and Forbes can always get Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and other icons for interviews because they can offer that coveted cover story slot. A physical product like a magazine has inherent value and feels important. Plus, it’s displayed on newsstands everywhere in public. By comparison, digital-only stories and photos are hidden from view.
Being the cover girl for Vanity Fair, Vogue or even Playboy has cachet now. Online, not so much.
The media makes a big deal about the model chosen for the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine’s annual swimsuit issue. It likely won’t be such a big deal when it’s only online.

This is the third in a series on content lost in the analog to digital transition. Here is a link to the other two articles in the series “The failed promise of digital content”:
Part 1: Music
Part 2: Video

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