Think of a newspaper or magazine as a mountain of data to which a thin new layer of topsoil gets added each day or each week. Everybody sees the new soil. But what’s underneath gets covered up and forgotten. Even the people who own the mountain don’t know much about the lower layers.
That wouldn’t matter if old content was bad content. But it’s not. Journalism, at least good journalism, dates much less than we are prone to think.
You never hear anybody say, “I’m not going to listen to that record because it was released last year”, or, “I’m not going to watch that film because it came out last month”. Why are we so much less interested in journalism that’s a month or a year old?
The answer is this: We’ve been on the receiving end of decades of salesmanship from the newspaper industry, telling us that today’s newspaper is essential, but yesterday’s newspaper is worthless.
Look who’s talking. It’s been 50 years since newspapers had the main job of telling people what’s new that day. For decades they’ve been filling their pages with more and more timeless writing. The process is all but complete. Go back into the features pages of your favourite newspaper from a year ago, and you’ll find scarcely a piece that couldn’t appear just as easily today, with a few very minor changes.
All this boils down to a simple proposition: old content is undervalued in the market, relative to new content. There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of articles in writers’ and publishers’ archives which are as good to read today as they were on the day they were published. Yet they are effectively valued by their owners at zero, written off, never to be seen again.
I say all this with feeling because for the past five years I have been curating a recommendations site, The Browser, picking out six to eight of the best pieces published online each day. The thought of all these thousands of pieces, every one a delight, lying dormant in archives, strikes me as deeply unfair to both writers and readers.
I have my own ideas for exploiting this market failure. What puzzles me more is the failure of newspapers and magazines themselves to do so. Why do almost none of them (the New Yorker is an honourable exception) make any serious attempt to organise, prioritise and monetise their archives? They, after all, are the owners of the mountains, and whatever treasures may lie buried within.
The answer is that they are too fixated on adding the daily or weekly layer of new topsoil. Some of them, I know from experience, see any serious effort to monetise their archive content as a form of competition with their new content. At most, they may have some “related content” algorithms, but those algorithms are only going to be as good as the database tagging, which is to say, not good at all.
So here’s my advice: Newspapers and magazines, make your next hire an archive editor. Mine that mountain of fantastic free content. It’s your history and your brand. Don’t just sit on it.