Anyone who has been blogging for a while knows that new stuff sells. While the lifeblood of a blog is new content in the form of fresh posts, if those posts address new research, new articles, new books, new ideas, and new news, they excite readers and drive traffic. If those posts address older research, articles, books, and ideas, readers and traffic drop like flies. In the first few years of this blog, I addressed mainly the new and watched traffic consistently grow to respectable levels. But over the past year, as I’ve been delving deeply into the history of evolutionary religious studies and older ideas in the field, I’ve watched traffic drop like drivers on Sunday. If traffic (rather than discovery) was my main concern, I’d ditch the old and get right back to the new.
While I’m not sure what drives our desire for the new, I’m fairly certain that it has some intellectually unhealthy consequences. Indeed, it was this realization that caused me to divert from all the new research this past year and devote considerable time and study to the old. It has, without doubt, been the best thing I’ve done and has given me an entirely different perspective on all the new (much of which really isn’t new, but appears that way because it either ignores the old or wraps the old in shiny new scientific language or modern metaphors).
This all came to mind while reading Roger Cottrell’s piece on his experiences as the editor of The Browser, which I consider to be the single best source of information on the web. On a daily basis, Cottrell (and I assume others) expertly identify the web’s best writing and deliver it in one-stop shopping. While it’s my favorite bookmark, it’s also dangerous and can easily add a good hour to your reading day. Here’s what Cottrell had to say about our collective fetish for the new:
[W]e overvalue new writing, almost absurdly so, and we undervalue older writing. I feel this market failure keenly each day when I recommend a fine piece of writing that deserves to be read for years to come and yet will have at most two days in the sun.
You never hear anybody say, “I’m not going to listen to that record because it was released last year,” or, “I’m not going to watch that film because it came out last month.” Why are we so much less interested in journalism that’s a month or a year old?
The answer is that we have been on the receiving end of decades of salesmanship from the newspaper industry, telling us that today’s newspaper is essential but yesterday’s newspaper is worthless.
That distinction has been increasingly bogus since newspapers lost their news-breaking role to faster media 50 years ago, and began filling their pages with more and more timeless writing.
While consumers had to rely on print media, the distinction between old and new could be sustained by availability: today’s newspaper was everywhere, yesterday’s newspaper was nowhere, except perhaps in the cat litter.
Online, that distinction disappears – or it should. You can call up a year-old piece as easily as you can call up a day-old piece. And yet we hardly ever do so, because we are so hardly ever prompted to do so. Which condemns tens if not hundreds of thousands of perfectly serviceable articles to sleep in writers’ and publishers’ archives, written off, never to be seen again.
Why do even big publishing groups with the resources to do so (the New Yorker is an honourable exception) make so little attempt to organise, prioritise and monetise their archives?
The best explanation I can suggest comes from an analogy given to me by George Brock, a former managing editor of The Times, who is now professor of journalism at City University in London. Think of a newspaper or magazine as a mountain of data, he says, to which a thin new layer of topsoil gets added each day or each week. Everybody sees the new soil. But what’s underneath gets covered up and forgotten. Even the people who own the mountain don’t know what’s in the lower layers.
They might try to find out but that demands a whole new set of tools. And, besides, they are too busy adding the new layer of topsoil each day.
I suspect that the wisest new hire for any long-established newspaper or magazine would be a smart, disruptive archive editor. Why just sit on a mountain of classic content, when you could be digging into it and finding buried treasure?
While Cottrell is commenting on buried treasure in shorter and longer form journalism, it can be found everywhere, including blogs that have been active for more than a few years. This blog, for instance, has more than 700 posts done over the past 3 years and contains deep-archived (and searchable) layers constantly being covered by new topsoil. Beyond blogs, treasures are to be found everywhere — including the enormous scholarly literature that has been published in journals over the past 100 years and which is archived by JSTOR. Most of those articles have been forgotten in the constant scholarly rush to publish something new, with the result being that old ideas are constantly being re-discovered in ways that make me wonder whether progress is really being made. I have my doubts.