Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is History the Casualty of the Internet?

An older gentleman by a kiosk outside The Commonwealth Club offices on Market Street holds up the San Francisco Chronicle and cries repeatedly, "EXTRA!, EXTRA!, EXTRA!"

Who says the newspaper industry is faltering?

At least, it's not hurting today, with another round of colorful, graphically pleasing editions featured on newsstands across the country. The Newseum web site has an extensive gallery of today's historic page-ones featuring a very elegant and simple cover from The Fresno Bee.

According the Associated Press, many of the nation's largest newspapers, including The New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post, printed extra papers in advance of high demand. Many learned a lessons from the day after the November election when demand for papers to commemorate Barack Obama's victory left publishers flat-footed. Not only are newspapers increasing production of their daily editions, but also publishing special editions and books ranging in price from $4.95 to $14.95.

The rush to grab a piece of history through buying and preserving newspapers has been an American tradition since the colonists' veracious habit of reading the news made the nascent country one of the most learned places in the world. With the end of newspapers as we know them possibly around the corner -- at least, Michael Hirschorn at The Atlantic says The Times could be kaput as early as this May -- how will people retain the memories of historic times such as President Obama's inauguration?

Without a paper and ink version of the news, will people download a screen shot of yesterday's home page of the Washington Post? Send the file to their printer and unassumingly tuck it between last month's overdue phone bill and their child's sterling report card? The Internet as a record of history has proven to be insufficient with its power based on constant change at the whim of breaking news. Lasting snapshots of a single day or event invariably fall through the cracks. Organizations like The Internet Archive strive to preserve the web's news history but fall short in their brevity.

What is the future? There seems to be a missing link between how a new generation of people consume the news through the net on a personal computer, laptop or even their smart phones. Portability and complete access to the web at any moment is also problematic. reported in December on rumors of a larger seven-by-nine inch iPod which would be capable of accessing the news and making it easier to navigate and read. Down the road, the news may be downloaded onto bendable computers, which conceivably could be rolled up and folded without harm.

Of course, none of these devices will solve the problem of capturing history in a tangible form. It may be the one aspect of communication we will have to adapt at a time when more information is flowing than at any time in human consciousness. The casualty ironically may be history.

--Steven Tavares


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