Technology

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Richard Drew/AP

When History Goes Digital, Is Print News Passé?

September 12, 2008 09:54 AM
by Cara McDonough
Some publications applaud Google’s plan to digitize newspaper archives and make them searchable to the public. Others want to know what’s in it for them.

All the News that’s Fit to Scan

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Google announced this week that it plans to digitize millions of pages newspaper archives and make them available through Google News, and eventually on participating newspapers’ Web sites. The stories will appear as they did in the original print pages of the papers. Google plans to run ads along with the archived stories, and share revenue with the newspaper publishers.

This is really good for newspapers because we are going to be bringing online an old generation of contributions from journalists, as well as widening the reader base of news archives,” said Marissa Mayer, vice president for search products and user experience at Google, in The New York Times.

Already, however, technology bloggers and publishers are questioning what the project means for the newspaper industry. With ad revenue and print circulation slowing in recent months, due to increased use of the Internet for news reading, will the project be a boon for newspapers or knock them further into obscurity?

Some newspapers may be less than enthusiastic about the project, reports the Times, as “many newspaper publishers view search engines like Google as threats to their own business.”

Ken Doctor, an analyst with research company Outsell, said to the Times that the concern is that Google will be able to commoditize the archived content “just like news portals have commoditized current news content.”

But papers participating in the program are positive. “Getting the digitized content available is a wonderful thing for people of this area,” said Tim Rozgonyi, research editor at The St. Petersburg Times. “They’ll be able to go to our site or Google’s and tap into 100 years of history.”

The project will expand on a two-year effort to make archives of The Washington Post and The New York Times that were already digitized available online, and Google has announced plans to begin partnering with publishers of newspapers including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Quebec Chronicle Telegraph, reports Computerworld. The Internet giant has not, however, released a full list of newspapers that have agreed to the project.

Opinion & Analysis: A wealth of history and the fate of libraries

Google’s project is bound to make many Internet users, from history buffs to reporters, happy.

“The effort is of particular interest to reporters such as myself who've made the jump from print journalism to online,” writes CNET’s Stephen Shankland. He says that the archives Google will make available will be an incredibly important resource: “online news actually is more permanent in many ways than a newspaper that's almost invariably recycled or thrown away within a day of its publication. Few have the time and money to visit a newspaper's archive of old papers, called the morgue, or flip through back issues in a state library's microfilm collection.”

Others hint that the project, while worthwhile, could make print newspapers and other publications, and even libraries, less necessary in an increasingly digitized age.

Elaine Chow jokes on technology blog Gizmodo, “News junkies rejoice! Google has begun scanning microfilm from various newspapers' historic archives to make them searchable online, further pushing libraries towards obsolescence (just kidding, i think).”

And David Rothman writes, on blog TeleRead, that he likes the idea of so much archived news being online, but “will it mean less independence for newspapers, both individually and as an industry? Remains to be seen.”

The full impact of the newspaper digitization project will take time to assess. In the meantime, Google will work towards convincing more newspapers that partnering with them on the project is worth it.

Background: The book-scanning controversy

Many analysts have pointed out that Google has made one major improvement in their latest scanning and digitization project: this time, they asked for permission from newspaper publishers.

Google’s book-scanning project
caused controversy among some book publishers when it began in 2005, because they claimed that the company had failed to get permission to scan books protected by copyrights.

Under Google Book Search, people are able to search for and read copies of books scanned from several major research libraries. "It's a way for publishers to experiment with a new method for earning money from their books," Google said in a statement on its Web site in March 2006, as reported by The Street.com.

But the project brought lawsuits from both the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers for copyright infringement, although Google asserted that the project was legal under the fair-use doctrine of the copyright law. The project is now up and running, although debate continues over Google’s original methods.

Reference: Google’s announcement; first man on the moon

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