Journalists often speak of “the record” as a substantial thing, for example, by getting a clear signal from a source that what’s said will be “on the record.”
But what if “the record” is evanescent, is it a “record” in the long-term sense the word implies? Nothing lasts forever, of course, but one would like to think “the record” would last, say, a few generations. Yet most of journalism‘s products, I would bet, do not.
Nearly all of radio is long gone. Same with a lot — maybe most — of television. Even if tapes are kept, what can play them? In my garage I have a box of 2″, 1″, 3/4″ and VHS (1/2″) tapes of TV “content” (as we say today) from decades ago. Except for the VHS tapes, I don’t have a machine that can play any of them, and don’t expect to find one easily, or ever. I also have many hundreds of cassette tapes, plus hundreds of floppies, mini-disks and other containers for which decanting will prove troublesome or impossible. Much of my old data can only be read by old computers with old operating systems, and I only have a few combinations of those, also taking up space in the garage, some of which haven’t felt electric current in two decades or more. And let’s not go into the (yes, literally) dozens of dead hard drives I have in boxes and drawers, with who-knows-what half-buried inside them.
I suppose most of the major newspapers have troubled to archive their data. But it’s customary for the papers to put their old “content” behind a paywall — giving away the news and charging for the olds, as it were. I think that’s a mistake, but I’m a voice in the wilderness on that one. In any case, getting at “the record” at a big paper is often a pain in the ass, typically an expensive one.
And now that the live Web has become normative (all that social stuff, and commercial sites with content that changes by the moment, with the “experience” customized differently for everybody, in real time) the only place the relatively static Web survives is Wikipedia. Is “the record” anywhere more sensible and intact than in Wikipedia? I might be wrong (yes, tell me) but that’s how it looks to me.
Wikipedia is imperfect in countless ways. But at least it works, and its unambiguous purpose is to serve as a record. Every article has a history, and every revision can be found. Searches across the whole of any article’s history (and across other variables) can be done. Again, it’s not perfect, but improving it isn’t out of the question, or in the hands of some .com or .org that might be sold.
So here’s what I’m thinking: Journalism, as a field, should be concerned with adding to the record that is Wikipedia. (Wikipedia clearly cares about journalism.) If you are a reporter or an editor, and you write something of worthy of citation in a Wikipedia article, maybe you should put it in there — or have somebody else do it — as a professional pro formality. Hey, why not?
I also wonder to what degree journalism classes, and schools of journalism, care about Wikipedia. I believe it should be a lot, if it isn’t already. But I don’t know, yet. Though I plan to soon, since I plan to make journalism a preoccupation of mine over the coming year. Details when I’m ready in a month or so.