Posted by: structureofnews | June 28, 2011

Ephemeral Print

Just a quick post to point to a post by freelance media journalist Jon Slattery at the Media Briefing, about an insight he recently had about the permanence of digital versus the fleeting nature of print.   You read that right.

Sure, print feels real in your hand, and digital is just so many photons on a screen that die when you run out of battery.  But good luck finding the paper the next day – especially if you’ve been taking the dog for a walk – while you can (theoretically at least) always find a digital story somewhere in the electronic archive.

But talking to journalism students recently at the London College of Communication , where they work on a weekly college newspaper and online, I was struck how for many of them digital has a permanence that print doesn’t.

One said of digital: “It is an archive, whereas print is ephemeral.”

The students, quite rightly, see the importance of building up an online archive of their college work, blogs and articles they may have done on work experience which they can email in one click to a prospective employer, rather than a book of yellowing print cuttings.

Sounds obvious, but clearly it isn’t – at least not yet – to a fair number of people in our business.

We’re been so focused on the idea of speed and reach on digital that we often forget about the value of its (potential) permanence.  We find ways to work faster and faster and speed information to people at ever quicker-rates.  And as a result we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about how best to build the tools, structures, stories – and products – that really take advantage of the accumulation of information over time.


  1. On reflection I think that view is just plain wrong. It’s hard for me to find locally written stories that are more than two years old online. I know because I recently searched for some of my stories when I needed to show them to someone.

    Maybe things are archived better in the world outside Australia and New Zealand, but I doubt it.

    • Bill,

      It’s true that things can be hard to find online – but they do (often) exist somewhere. The problem is that we’ve tended to ignore that side of digital – your need, for example, to find some old stories of yours – and instead concentrated on its speed.

      So I agree that we don’t do a good job of archiving – and beyond that, structuring – our content so that it can be easily found and used later on. That’s partly my point: We should be doing a much better job of it, so we can capture the value of digital’s potential permanence.


  2. Ephemeral Print
    Do you remember the old adage about print newspapers? Here today and gone tomorrow. One of my jobs in the past was to conduct media relations for TVOntario, our public television network. Executives used to worry about what was said in print all the time. I often said that the story they were so concerned about will be used the next day to wrap someone’s fish and chips or worst yet their garbage. The students you mention are right. Web journalism is an archive and it is often an archive connected to other sources in typical webbed fashion making the “here today gone tomorrow” adage passé and therefore a media relations nightmare. Interesting and useful discussion. Thanks

  3. […] in more multimedia, doesn’t really tap the possibilities inherent in a form where content can persist forever (or at least for a long time), and user behavior is still […]

  4. […] of digital media that we need to retool around to take advantage of?  Speed, reach, persistence, interactivity, visuals, sound, data, automation, technology… and more.  We’ve barely […]

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