It used to be simple: today's paper and birdcage material. We published the paper, and never looked back, almost literally. The trusty librarians could dig through yellowed files, should we need to find something written some time back. But we relied more on our memories, or those growing stacks of papers in our offices and cubicles.
Pre-Internet, the readers did the same. Some newsprint lovers nursed stashes of old papers, some containing precious articles, some big stories worth keeping, some untapped treasures to be gotten to some day.
In the first 10 years of the Internet, that's begun to change, but slowly. News publishers early on recreated the doorstep/birdcage divide. Soon as they figured out they couldn't charge for today's content, they felt compelled to charge for something. Hence, archives. Walled-off and searchable, but through separate interfaces, at per-article and bundled costs. These products have created good revenue streams, but not major ones. That's what has led both Time Inc. and the New York Times to unbuckle their archive belts and open them up to the public.
As Dan Gillmor sagely pointed out as the Times announced the freeing of the archives (and the termination of Times Select), the Times seized the opportunity to become the publisher of record, instant world news, everywhere, a real platform for 21st century growth. Local news publishers are now scratching their own heads, wondering if they can become the publishers of record for their metro areas and communities, and whether they'll be similarly (though on a smaller scale) rewarded. There are many edges to that argument, and I won't go into them here.
But I do want to point to what I think is a set of breakthroughs in how we think about and access those yellowed pages (what colors do pixels turn?). It's a simple timeline, and I think we'll see it become mainstream, and as much a part of news consciousness as the empty search rectangle has become.
Consider three timelines, pioneering Topix', the BBC's and Google's.
Topix' timeline first debuted summer of '06 as I recall. That's when Topix' raison-d-etre was news aggregation and the tool made sense, allowing readers to pick a spot on a timeline to narrow a recent search. The idea: Why pile through 10 years of stuff, when you can pick several months or a couple of years? Given Topix' recent move to a community-centered, forum-forward approach, I don't think the timeline is still in use on the site.
We can also see what the Beeb is up, with its historical timeline, back to the Magna Carta and beyond. Pad back into British history, and then "Take a Journey" into various content packages.
And then of course, as always (that's a three-year always) Google. In its Labs, within Experimental Search is a Timeline beta.
It looks, not surprisingly, like Topix's. The future is as much about taking other companies' best discarded ideas as inventing your own.
Play with these, and you can see how the search can be magically limited. As Google marches toward $700 a share and skeptics ponder how the "next Google" will find a way to improve search, they often say that Google is too big, returning too much. But timelines (and maps) are ways of putting search narrowing in customers' hands. Expect them to become part of the permanent landscape soon.