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As the Internet Replaces Print Publishing, Urge to 'Unpublish' Means Censoring History

The Internet has opened up the past and made it fungible with a few keystrokes. The offended know it's physically easy to change a story online.

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Salvucci said he had tried but failed to draw the attention of congressional committees to the looming threats to the historical record online.

"With what I know right now, every time I hear somebody is going to digitize something for posterity, I think to myself, 'Good luck,'" Salvucci said. "Because if you can digitalize it, you can vaporize it.

"This is not just a vision of some crazed social democrat in Britain," he said, in a reference to Orwell. "This is no joke. This is happening."

'Like stealing a book'

While historians of Mexico's past lament their loss, current-day newspaper editors are struggling to keep the record of today's news intact. In the Star survey, they wrote about their reluctance to revise history.

"For one, we have an ethical obligation to historians, researchers and readers to uphold the content record we have created," said Peter Crowley of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. "We should only remove something if it is libelous -- and even then, we should be careful."

Doug Ernst of the St. Helena Star said, "The online archive is like a library. Unpublishing is like stealing a book from the library."

There are no industry-wide "best practices" for handling the public's requests. In the report, English recommended that papers draw up a policy and choose several top executives to make decisions by consensus. They should be humane but not give in to "source remorse," English said.

It's been an uneven approach so far. The Times-Tribune/Times Shamrock Communications agreed to remove a story that police said would compromise an investigation. But the Wisconsin State Journal declined to take down a years-old column that mentioned a man's immigration problems.

Capital Gazette Communications removed all the columns written by an author after discovering plagiarism in one of them. The Dayton Daily took down a nude picture that a woman had accidentally uploaded to an online photo gallery. The Summit Daily News removed a story in which a rookie reporter had switched the name of the suspect and the reporting party.

The Big Spring Herald declined to remove the story of a man arrested for indecent exposure, even though the case was later expunged from his record. The Houston Chronicle agreed to remove an in-depth story, several years old, about a heroin addict who was now clean and looking for work as a paralegal.

"We have done this in the rarest of cases, based on facts specific to individual cases," said Dean Betz of the Chronicle. "It's largely done for humanitarian reasons."

At GateHouse Media, a company that owns hundreds of dailies, weeklies and local Web sites in the U.S., officials decided to institute a pilot "sunset" policy at some New England papers, in which police blotter reports of misdemeanors are programmed to "fall off" the Web sites, six months after publication.

"How long does something minor like a shoplifting charge have to follow someone on the Web?" asked Brad Dennison, a GateHouse vice president. "My moral barometer tells me that's not fair. There's no rule that says this stuff has to live forever." (Or even be published in the first place, English notes.)

Yet, as Paulette Haddix of the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana said: "If something happened, it happened. If it was said, it was said. We don't want to set any 'unpublishing' precedent where we are rewriting history."

Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science and the environment. Among many honors during a 21-year newspaper career, Burns received the 'Pinnacle of Excellence' Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a first-place 'Best of the West' regional award for immigration and minority affairs reporting, and a first-place award for investigative reporting from the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

 
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