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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

March 11, 2010


Miller-Mcune Magazine - In a recent survey of 110 news organizations, the Toronto Star found that increasingly, publishers are fielding regular requests from anxious and embarrassed readers to "unpublish" information, sometimes months or years after it first appeared online.

Some readers don't want their marital status or the price of their home known, or they were quoted saying something they now regret. They may be angry because the news of their arrest was reported, but not the news that they were acquitted or that charges were dropped, and their names keep popping up on Internet searches in connection with the crimes, usually misdemeanors.

Pre-Internet, of course, the reports remained on paper, intact and inviolable - but also inaccessible to the casual viewer and probably unknown. The Internet has opened up the past and made it fungible with a few keystrokes. The offended know it's physically easy to change a story online.

"Most often, these individuals don't understand a newspaper's greater responsibility to its readers and the public record," said Kathy English, the Star's public editor, the author of the report, and the person who handles reader requests to "unpublish," in consultation with the Star's lawyers and senior editors. . .

"Nearly 80 percent of the editors who participated in the survey said the circumstances sometimes do warrant changing the record. Some said they would remove information if there were a legal reason to do so. Others were more open to adding information than subtracting it. Overall, though, they were strongly resistant to altering published stories, even as they said they want to be fair to those named in the news. . .

On a much broader scale, "unpublishing" is the wholesale loss of content that can occur when an online journal or Web archive is sold or goes bankrupt, or the software needed to read it becomes obsolete. It's expensive to transfer records from an old server to a newer, faster version that operates with different formats and programs. A floppy disk has a half-life of about five years.

"It's not clear who's responsible to archive digital material," said Stanley Katz, director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. "Some of the stuff's going to go away altogether. We are likely to lose whole subsets of it. If we keep renewing everything, we can keep it going. But the question is whether there is money and commitment enough to keep it going. The odds are that money will be applied selectively. …"

"If the New York Times goes out of business, whose responsibility is it to preserve their digital archive? This kind of thing is happening as we watch. It's not speculation.". . .

At Columbia University, a team of seven people, including two full-time librarians, has recently founded the Human Rights Web Archive to preserve Web sites that are providing valuable information on struggles for democracy in other countries. Many of these sites are being hacked, suspended or shut down by repressive regimes. . .

Preservation is not cheap. Columbia's effort is funded by a three-year, $716,000 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Print collections in libraries can weather a few years of budget austerity, scholars say, but a few lean years could cause large portions of the electronic record to disappear.

Twenty-one complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible are still in existence today after more than 500 years. The Dead Sea Scrolls (which are going online) survived more than two millennia. How long will electronic books survive?


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