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Habit formation: How The Wall Street Journal turned user-level data into a strategy to keep subscribers coming back
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March 28, 2019, 12:11 p.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK: www.cjr.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   March 28, 2019

When’s the last time you really archived a story? Maybe…never, considering Google Docs and GitHub, both privately owned, don’t really count.

In what should hopefully be a reality check for many, Columbia University researchers Sharon Ringel and Angela Woodall analyzed the archiving mindsets and habits of the journalism industry through interviews with 48 individuals across 30 total organizations starting in March 2018. For a field that likes to consider itself the author of the first draft of history, the vast majority of those authors don’t prioritize how to save and share that history in the future.

“Preserving digital content is not, first and foremost, a technical challenge. Rather, it’s a test of human decision-making and a matter of priority. The first step in tackling an archival process is the intention to save content,” Ringel and Woodall wrote in their report published in Columbia Journalism Review today.

Here are some of the direct quotes from those interviews — it’s not hard to see why they are off-base:

  1. “If it’s in a Google Doc, it’s sort of there forever. Right?”
  2. “It’s been preserved on the website.”
  3. “News is about what is new and now, in the present, and not about the past.”
  4. “The difference between digital-only and print organizations is that we try to keep everything in circulation. We don’t [have] to preserve things for the record. We have to keep the record publicly available.”
  5. “What is useful for production [a CMS] is not necessarily the thing that’s useful for history.”
  6. “Thank God for the Internet Archive.”

While blessings should indeed be bestowed upon the Internet Archive and others who build mission-driven records of history, the responsibility of public record preservation is a shared burden. (And Google Doc permissions can always be revoked/passwords lost!)

There’s a number of preexisting efforts to store and share journalism, Ringel and Wooddall note, though those are largely driven by newspaper consortiums and private companies like Ancestry.com’s Archives.com and Newspapers.com (and yes, they also mention blockchain): “There exist a number of other archiving initiatives, by both individuals and nonprofits, from which news managers can learn or enlist services, including PastPages by Ben Welsh, NewsGrabber by Archive Team, and Archive-It by the Internet Archive. According to news organizations, for digital archiving efforts to succeed, the process must be made simple, both in terms of implementation and workflow.” (Preservation efforts are also trying to take off in the podcast realm.)

They highlight The New York Times’ work at building out its own archive as the golden standard, but as we reported last year, that’s the work of:

a core team that works on the Times’s archiving efforts, which are part of a broader internal effort called Project Kondo (as in, life-organizing phenomenon Marie Kondo) to review old features and initiatives on the site — and then decide what to save and what to shut down.

Let journalism archives spark future joy.

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