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.