What's Google Doing in Our Basement?

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The New York Times reports that Google is starting to root around in the basements of newspapers, where rats scurry among dusty stacks of newsprint and old cartons full of microfiche. That's where the archives are typically kept from the pre-Internet, pre-searchable era in news. Google intends to scan and digitize such old archives at selected papers (SW not among them, sadly), then it can presumably sell ads to users who want to look up old obituaries and other news stories without making a trip to the library.

Hey, Google, if you want to help us clean out our basement, I can give you a broom...

It's unlikely that the NYT or Wall Street Journal would cede their archives to an indirect competitor (because everybody sells ads). But for smaller papers, like The Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, mentioned in the NYT story, it's a great deal: They're likely not competing with Google to sell the same kind of ads; and they rescue their archives for posterity at zero cost. Reporters can do research more easily, as can scholars and students. Everybody wins, at least at the lower tier of the market.

Here in Seattle, you can search the Times and P-I online back to about 1990. SW is limited to about 1998 on our Web site (when it's working properly); I don't read the Stranger, but I'm guessing it's about the same. Some journalists can use proprietary services like Nexis to nose back into the '80s, when computers first entered the newsroom. After that, it's all microfiche and microfilm, which are fairly permanent media--more so than floppy discs, DVDs, and CDs, some argue--but cumbersome at best to use. And when you want to search them at our wonderful Rem Koolhaas library, you first have to finger through old yellow notecards and tattered clipping folders. It's low-tech to get to medium-tech, nowhere near as convenient as keyword searching via Google (the working journalist's favorite tool).

Significantly, Google is creeping into our basements at a time when newspapers frankly don't have the resources to digitize their own archives. Pressured by shareholders and declining ad revenues, they're mostly slashing staff and cutting costs. To capture archives in-house would likely mean outsourcing to India; and even that costs money. But, I think that Google correctly recognizes there's new money to be made from old content. As does the NYT--which is why it sells its old photos and such as collectibles. Still, you have to be able to retrieve it before you can profit from it.

I, for one, would love to be able to search our great old SW stories from 1976 to 1997 from the keyboard, to recall what Roger Downey, David Brewster, Fred Moody, Eric Scigliano, and others had to say about the past issues and politicians of the day. Much of today's news has its roots back there--like the Viaduct, stadiums, and transportation planning (or lack thereof). And, Google, if you're willing to help with our archives, here are the keys to our basement. But pay no attention to that groaning, emaciated figure we keep chained in the corner. We had to do something with David Schneiderman.

 
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