'Unpublishing' - the growing challenge for editors/publishers
I just came across some work by Kathy English, reader's representative for the Toronto Star, in which she looks at the growing number of requests for news organizations to "unpublish" information in their digital archives and on their Web sites.
English did her paper, "The longtail of news,"(PDF) for the AP Managing Editors. It should be required reading for every journalist, but especially every editor. (Here also is an earlier article from English on "Why the Star does not 'unpublish.' ")
It follows up on work that I, Larry Timbs and Will Atkinson did in 2007 in what we think was the first academic study of newspapers' "digital attics." It was presented at the annual Huck Boyd conference, and you can find our paper in the winter 2007 edition of Grassroots Editor.(PDF)
English finds much the same thing we did - there is widespread opposition against unpublishing. But requests seem to be growing. At the time we did our research, more than a quarter of those at community papers and more than half of those at larger papers said they had had requests to remove material from the archives. (Our research was based on responses from 63 editors at Southern Newspaper Association member papers. The response rate was disappointing, but given English's conclusion that this is a growing problem -- enough so that the APME commissioned her study -- I would hope future studies would see greater response.)
English's nine-question survey does not appear to ask directly how often the respondents (110 editors responded nationwide) have had to deal with such requests or the frequency. However, she cites one Gatehouse executive who says that while five years ago such requests were rare, now he deals with them almost daily. (On the other end, a Chicago Sun-Times editor says he rarely deals with such requests.)
She finds more than three-quarters of those who responded would consider unpublishing in some circumstances. That indicates a bit of a softening from the 95 percent who supported the statement in our study that changes should not be made unless there is clear error. But both studies still find strong opposition to unpublishing overall.
It is still disappointing to find in English's study that barely half of the news organizations she surveyed had some kind of policy for dealing with such requests. Our study found policies at about a third -- but this issue is too important, and growing, for any organization not to have considered what to do. Our paper, more than English's, goes into some detail on the legal horizon (and a principle, quickly disappearing, called "practical obscurity" - more in a 2008 NY Times article), and it is not at all certain that the legal system won't weigh in on such things. (A higher court later overturned the order to remove the stories from the Kansas City Star Web site, but we are likely to see more such cases.)
What our study does that English's doesn't is pose four scenarios to the editors and measure their reactions. I think you would find the results interesting.
The problem, of course, is not confined to the U.S. See this U.K. editor's ruminations from earlier this year and readers' responses [2011: This link is now dead]. And in 2007, the same year as our study, one professor told the New York Times that archives perhaps should be programmed to eventually "forget" some information, much as people do. Brad Dennison, the Gatehouse executive interviewed by English,
English points out that police blotter reports posted online pose the potential for increasing problems. I can tell you from personal experience as founder of Hartsville Today, a community news site affiliated with the local twice-weekly paper, that such discussions have been a hot-button issue. (Unfortunately, a system crash late last year wiped out all the previous threads, but I think I may post something on the site asking for updated thoughts.) The thing that seems to infuriate people is that news organizations are willing to publish blotter items but then seldom follow up on the outcome to produce a complete record. (And, even if they do, they seldom use the ability to digitally link the stories.)
I think English has some good recommendations in her best practices section. That includes having a clear policy and making it known to the public. I especially like her recommendation that unpublish decisions should be made by consensus. As she notes, this provides a way for editors and publishers to deflect requests from powerful people and institutions. I can think of nothing worse than, if a news organization does unpublish, it gets a reputation of toadying to the powerful and ignoring the powerless.
About 50 non-journalists also answered English's survey, and she says most supported the resistance to "unpublish." I think it may be time to do some more extensive research in this area -- and then repeat it periodically. I have a feeling this is not going to be a static subject.
Also worth looking at:
This Jan. 5 article on Walletpop from Jason Cochran about newspaper archives in general being in jeopardy -- and with it major chunks of community history -- as the industry contracts.