Newspapers register themselves out of existence

The Globe and Mail just changed its web site so that you can’t read stories without registering; in fact, you can’t read their columnists at all unless you become a paid subscriber. Many newspapers are going this route, citing the obvious reason: They’re losing money because web surfers don’t buy a print copy. (That isn’t a chimerical concern; I have many friends who do precisely this.) There’s also the distinct possibility of the newspaper making a bit of coin off selling the email lists to online marketers, who apparently will pay rather insane rates — up to $300 per thousand — for addresses. Being a guy who occasionally writes for newspapers, and who reads them voraciously and wants them to survive, I’m in favor of anything they need to do to make ends meet.

But … I can’t help but agree with the many bloggers who’ve pointed out a problem: Newspapers that demand registration are not well-crawled by search engines, and thus vanish from view. “If you’re not in Google, you don’t exist,” as the joke goes, and it’s hardly even a joke anymore. One of the prime reasons I started Collision Detection was to build up some Google juice and make it easier for people to find Clive Thompson online. That’s why I dump copies of all my stories into this blog after they’ve been published: I want to make sure my writing doesn’t vanish from sight, and the best way to do that is make damn sure Google and Teoma and Altavista are crawling all over it.

It’s also a matter of global culture. One of the best things about newspapers putting their work online is that it lets foreigners get alternate views of the world. I’ll sometimes learn more about American politics by reading Canadian and European newspapers than by reading US ones. After all, it took a guy from France — Alexis de Tocqueville — to codify and describe the essential genius of democracy; an outsider’s perspective can sometimes be the best way to see what’s going on. If I were one of the columnists at the Globe and Mail, I’d be worried about how the paper is dooming me to global irrelevance.

Though of course, I’d also be worried if my newspaper were being driven out of business by the web. I don’t really know what the answer is here. But I seriously doubt that the way forward for serious print journalism is to avoid the Web.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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