All hail the archive: A secret weapon that publishers don't even realize they have
Boing Boing publishes posts at a rapid clip – often several times an hour. When you visit the site, there’s always something new for your intellect to chew on. On Facebook, we see the same priorities, with the most recent status updates always pushed to the top of our newsfeeds. On Twitter, the high-volume, high-velocity approach is taken to its extreme, with new Tweets rolling into timelines every second.
For lightweight content on social media, this emphasis on the new makes sense. But for blogs and other publishers of journalism – be it Slate, Salon, or the New York Times – “new” doesn’t necessarily mean “better” or “most important.” Indeed, for all such sites, including PandoDaily, there is much wealth to be mined from content that has come and almost gone -- stories that are left to languish in the archives once their 15 minutes in the feature slot has passed.
Boing Boing, for instance, is widely loved for its great finds, thoughtful commentary, and occasional essays. But those articles spend precious little time at the top of the page – and, because of the sheer volume of content on the site, they can be pushed down a very long way. Boing Boing has more than 5,000 pages of archives, sorted only by tags and dates. There is no “Best of Boing Boing 2012,” or “Boing Boing’s Greatest Hits,” or “Boing Boing’s Favorite Steampunked Cats.” (Although they do publish an end-of-year round up. Not listed in the archives, though.) While human curation plays a key role in Boing Boing’s editorial selection process, it has no role in repackaging stories from days gone by. Once a story is pushed off the “front page,” it can only be discovered by accident or through social sharing – it is left to the limp whims of the long tail. Same goes for Slate, Salon, the New York Times, and any number of other publications.
Ben Brown, an Austin-based programmer and designer of publishing platforms, thinks that’s a shame. “Traditional print publishers look at their archives as these huge assets,” says Brown, who runs interactive design agency XOXCO. (Disclosure: XOXCO is on retainer for PandoDaily and designed this website.) “They re-release things; there’s a whole life cycle of content as it goes through multiple formats and multiple channels. But we don’t do that on the Web, and it just seems like a missed opportunity.”
Part of our obsession with “new” on the Web is that publishing software has been designed to prioritize the freshest stuff, says Brown. Take Twitter, for example. It is so rooted in the moment that until recently, its search function didn’t even reach back more than a few days in the past, and it was only at the end of last year that it gave users the ability to download their archives. Twitter is such an “of the moment” platform that the Timehop app, which sends users daily reminders of what they Tweeted exactly a year ago, has been allowed not only to exist but also to earn a cult following. On the other hand, there’s WordPress, which defaults to the reverse chronological stream as a publishing layout. Feature boxes and “related stories” links notwithstanding, few publications have questioned the assumption that the stream is still the best way to display content. It’s high time, Brown suggests, to update our thinking on such matters.
There are some publishers who recognize that challenge. The Atlantic, for example, now publishes ebooks that repackage old content, such as last year’s wondrously named “The Best Writing From The Atlantic’s Technology Channel." Author Scott Berkun published a book, “Mindfire: Big Ideas For Curious Minds,” that features 30 essays from his blog. He has also organized his archives page (which doubles as his “About” page) according to specific categories, such as “popular posts,” “creativity,” and “life philosophy,” with a few hand-picked articles highlighted under each. And then there’s Byliner, which, as well as publishing original stories, resurfaces and re-publishes classics from authors’ archives.
Aaron Lammer, the cofounder of longform journalism curation site and reading app Longform, recently wrote an essay about Web archives that was published in Contents magazine. In it, he pointed to services like YouTube, Spotify, and Netflix, which offer entry into worlds of music and video in which “new” is just a side option.
“These services are built around vast archives,” he wrote, “and the consumption patterns they have inspired are far less oriented to new releases than to recommendations distilled from the taste of others.” He went on to argue that publications can unlock real value from their neglected archives. “When you invest in your archive... you do more than simply pad your pageview count. You announce to the world that your work merits ongoing interest, and you confirm to your readers that the relationship you’re building with them is long term.”
He also noted that while the most popular stories on Longform tend to be about crime or sex, publication date has no bearing on whether or not readers will click on a story. In fact, says Lammer in a follow-up interview, the Twitterfication of Web consumption – always focused on the now now now and the new new new – simultaneously gives rise to more in-depth content. That much is evidenced by the sudden desire among new-media organizations, such as BuzzFeed, Tumblr, and The Magazine, to produce longform journalism. Meanwhile, read-later services such as Instapaper, Readability, and Pocket, as well as Longform competitor, Longreads, have now been facilitating a more laidback Web-based reading experience for years. (Instapaper, the forerunner of this trend, was launched at the start of 2008.)
“A lot of these things break along an extreme axis, so that as things go very, very short and very, very fast, they simultaneously go long and timeless,” says Lammer. “There is a polarizing effect.”
As long as such an effect continues, there will be value for publishers in revisiting the content they invested in all those many days – or minutes – ago. At least, that's what Ben Brown thinks.
“We work with publishers all the time, and it kills me to see their archives just sitting there,” Brown says. XOXCO, for instance, designed the original website for literary Web publisher The Rumpus. Every day, thousands of readers come to the site for the first time but never read the stuff that was published in its early days. The publication has thousands of high-quality articles sitting in their database, which reaches back to 2009 and is just begging for a readership, Brown says. “To me that seems like a business opportunity.”
Something to file away for later, perhaps.
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