This morning if you search Google for “Enron,” the top hit is Enron.com (the creditors’ recovery page) and the second is the Wikipedia article on Enron. The first listing from NYTimes.com is about 45th and it’s a TimesSelect (= pay) page that doesn’t even actually reference Enron. That’s an example of what’s on the mind of the Times’ ombudsman (um, “public editor”) Clark Hoyt when he begins his column. He finds the Times’ “business strategy” of getting “its articles to pop up first in Internet searches” — well, at least not at #45 — responsible for the quandary the Times finds itself in when it comes to the errors in its archive. I don’t quite see it that way.
Hoyt takes as his example an article abot Allen Kraus, who “once led a welfare office praised for its efforts to uncover fraud.” The Times first reported he resigned under pressure after a bribery investigation without including Kraus’ side of the story and later published a more balanced follow-up. Kraus says his boss eventually publicly sided with Kraus’ version. The details don’t matter much, although I must say it’s a relief for a change not to be talking about John Siegenthaler. The point is that Kraus is understandably upset that searches on his name turn up the Times’ faulty story. If that’s all you read, you’d think he’s a crook.
Hoyt then considers several solutions to this problem, seeming to favor the suggestion that the Time expunge faulty articles from its archive.
In fact, the solution is already in place. If you google “allen kraus” (in quotes), the #1 hit is a Times topic page about him that lists first the corrective article and then the faulty one. Perfect! We get the context we need while preserving the record. Topic pages are in fact the Times attempt to move its content up the Google results page. They give us a single, persistent URL that aggregates everything the Times knows about a topic…including what it got wrong.
Jeez, if the Times expunged from its archive every article about Iraq Judith Miller wrote, we’d think the Times slept through the whole run-up to the war. And future researchers would never understand how culpable the Times was for getting us into that miss. Bloggers get this right-er than Hoyt when we use strikethrough font to indicate an error we’ve corrected. We need the full archive.
Topic pages are a great solution to the problem of providing context, as well as advancing the Times’ search engine optimization desires. Removing articles from the record destroys the value of the record. You shouldn’t write history by rewriting the record.
So, rather than setting “time-outs” for articles based on how important the Times’ judges them, which is Hoyt’s suggestion, do more topic pages. And harvest the power of the crowd to create more topic pages and more context.