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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Archived stories shouldn't be deleted

By Tom Warhover
March 23, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Archives don’t change. People do. They aren’t always happy with the reminders.

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Last week, the Missourian's Vox magazine received a request to remove an article because it quoted a woman who was a smoker at the time and didn’t think much of Columbia’s proposed smoking ban for restaurants. I didn’t ask, but I assume she has since quit. Take me out of the article, she asked, or please take the story off the Web.

The piece ran eight years ago, when smoking in restaurants was the issue de rigueur.

I could, but won’t, link to the article in question, out of respect for the woman’s request. However, I couldn’t and wouldn’t change or remove the story.

The Missourian’s editorial policy on this point is pretty simple: Articles, photos, graphics or any other published works shouldn’t be removed and shouldn’t be changed unless there are errors to be corrected.

I’ve been asked to take down stories involving arrests for drunken driving and for marijuana possession. More innocent stories can baffle me. My all-time favorite “huh?” reaction came from the alpaca farmer who wanted me to remove a beautiful feature about his business. I’m thinking, what, he doesn’t want free advertising? Turns out he didn’t: He had moved to Great Britain three years after the story ran, and on those islands, there is a vocal, semi-militant group of anti-alpaca protesters. (Who knew?)

I get it. The public-ness of public information changed with the ubiquity of the Internet. Today you can find out an amazing and disturbing amount about individuals. That’s why we see the uproar about publishing names of gun owners – even though the information has been publicly available at government offices.

Social media sleuth and Missourian reporter Samantha Sunne can find details about your family photos. “I looked up this picture of somebody’s cat,” she wrote. “They took it with a Kodak Easyshare C433 zoom digital camera on Dec. 29, 2006, at 12:02 p.m, with their camera settings on Auto. Sometimes you can see their location when they took the photo, the program they used to edit it, and other stuff nobody realizes they’re putting out there on the Internet.”

She calls the software “creepy.”

In light of the new possibilities of “public,” should the Missourian reconsider its policy?

As I think through it, I stop at the fundamental nature of a newspaper. Its public service and its business model derive from the notion of creating a public record, a daybook of the lives and activities of the people of its community.

If a newspaper archives are a town’s biggest database, why would you destroy parts of that data? If journalism still serves as that first cut of history, why would you alter it?

Why would a business kill one of its greatest assets? Old stories have value. That’s why the Missourian launched a system in which everything on the website is free for the first 24 hours but anything older requires a paid membership.

The reach of a photo or article no longer is defined by geography. Editors can’t rationalize and say, well, no one in Walla Walla, Wash., will ever read this. But they can’t become paralyzed, either. Reporting on the human condition is as messy as humans can be.

Tom