The New York Times in April is relaunching nytimes.com, one of the most trafficked sites on the Web. The changes are going to embed The Times straight into the Web's content infrastructure, but, I'm afraid, its very virtues are going to make it less useful than it might be.
According to Robert Larson, director of product management and development of nytimes.com, The Times is finally going to do something about its persistent problem: Its lack of persistence. Times' stories famously are published without permanent links. If you find an article so important or exciting that you want to spread word about it, the link you put in will break after a week as The Times moves the article into its jail, um, archive.
The Times apparently makes significant money selling its online articles for $3 a pop--several times the cost of the original paper. Sure, there are costs to maintaining the archive, and we all want The Times to make money from what it produces, but the paper charges so much that it seriously lessens its own influence. You can't be the paper of record if the Web can't link to your articles. Personally, I'd rather see The Times open its archives and populate the archived pages with ads; our culture is better if every school kid has easy access to the history The Times has recorded--10 million articles going back to 1851.
The Times isn't going to give on this one, though. Instead, it's come up with a clever and useful way to give its content a permanent place on the Web. In April, The Times is going to launch thousands of pages, each devoted to a particular topic. Topics might include the famine in Bangladesh, Jimmy Carter, and Buffalo, New York. On a topic page you'll find links to all of the content The Times has developed over the years, from newspaper stories to video clips. Yes, there will be links back into the archives; presumably, you'll still have to pay to read them. The pages will be automatically assembled using the metadata The Times has been recording, meticulously by hand, for over a hundred years.
So, at last, The Times will have permanent links. They won't lead to particular stories, but they will lead to topics. New news stories will link to the topic pages, and I'm guessing enough people will find those pages useful that they'll start showing up toward the top of Google returns lists within a few months.
It's a brilliant idea. Through the use of metadata, a newspaper becomes an encyclopedia. Because it's The Times, the content will carry a glow of authority. There are just two problems.
First, if too many of the links lead to a request for cash, it will backfire. The Times will look greedy and will besmirch its reputation as an institution devoted to uncovering truth. Of course, it's a for-profit institution devoted to uncovering truth, but if its topics pages are teasers--"Hey, pal, for just $3 you can actually read the article we summarized so enticingly"--the topic pages could frustrate more people than they satisfy.
Second, the other player to watch at this point isn't another newspaper--not even the BBC, which has been taking fascinating, progressive steps--but Wikipedia, the bottom-up encyclopedia. It's got to gall The Times that Wikipedia shows up so often at the top of Google results lists. After all, Wikipedia is thrown together by a bunch of amateurs. The mighty resources of the venerable Times should be able to punch a hole in Wikipedia.
But no. It won't. Wikipedia has gotten too good and too reliable precisely because it's written by a bunch of amateurs. In a showdown, unless nytimes.com does its job well and carefully, Wikipedia's transparency and openness is going to make it seem like a more reliable, more current source of information for many types of topics ... not for the news-gathering that newspapers do best but for longer-term topics. (Wikipedia is starting a wiki-based news service, though.) The New York Times is a closed box, the edges sealed by the pride of professionalism. Wikipedia is an open book. Trust these days is flowing to what's open.
The nytimes.com topic pages may be quite successful. They may be frequently trafficked and they will contain useful information. But Wikipedia is the future.