Back in June, I wrote this in an email faculty discussion about the decline of newspapers.

The big newspapers have a resource they don’t use much or well enough: Their archives. Could they generate some money if they packaged these in neat, interactive ways?

An example is the Washington Post’s website section on Watergate.
But this is old, gray, and low-tech, i.e. not updated or interactive.

Imagine a version of THAT site with the exciting bells and whistles of Frontline’s beautiful site , i.e. with deep, readable, neatly packaged archives, historical photographs/slideshows, interactive maps, movable timelines, etc. –and all that stuff marshaled to create a narrative.

Imagine what the Times (say) could do with the Civil Rights movement. Or the atom bomb. Or the space program. Or the Civil War. Or the history of the Times itself. Or Iraq. Or nuclear power. Or the Scopes Trial and evolution. Or deinstitutionalization. The stories are already written, photographs taken. Add forums for debate (“Should we have dropped the bomb?” e.g.) , or updates on “What’s Happened Since”…, or “Arguments about the Past.”

New stories on news websites could link to these “Deep Story” packages, when relevant, in a way that would make you eager to go to these websites for current news, knowing you could get all this background, too.

Then, charge for access. Or maybe there would be enough hits for advertising.

Deep Stories would have a long shelf life, so they would bring in revenue over a long period of time, with minimal new investment needed.

We usually talk about the web in terms of how it allows instant news or commentary from anyone anywhere. We talk less often about how it allows, or could allow, a deeper view of the past, and a longer-term and broader cumulative discussion, than the fast yellowing daily paper (or blog).

This is probably one of those ideas of mine that would cost a lot and never make any money, and everybody knows it but me. I still like it.


OK, back to the present. A few weeks earlier, I’ve found out, the Times had created something along these lines, called TIMESMACHINE. This is a site that gives access to complete issues from the Times’ public domain archives, from 1851 to 1922. (It is available to home delivery subscribers only, which is a pain, but UMASS students and faculty can get it through the ProQuest database at Dubois Library’s website.)

The technical thinking behind it is here. And the home page and a sample issue are here.

It’s not exactly what I was had in mind–thoughtful combinations of archived stories with other resources, forums, slide-shows, more current stories etc.–but it’s an interesting start.

I don’t know about the business strategy. Wouldn’t it be better to offer it free to home subscribers AND to charge a fee to everyone else? Is a web-related feature going to work as an incentive for people to make a lifestyle decision–to get their paper delivered at home? Meanwhile, the computer-savvy and -curious readers who could really use this resource–high school or college students, for example–can’t get access unless they’re in e the home delivery area, and want to pay for a subscription. (Is this an example of the old-media head-in-the-sand mentality that Steve talks about?)

Shout if you come across any interesting examples of this kind of packaging.

David Perkins