Don't purge articles you're still linking to

I’m learning Java for a project I’m working on. Central to Java — although certainly not unique to it — is the concept of a garbage collector, which automatically frees memory that is no longer being used. This saves programmers time, because they no longer have to write code to explicitly “destroy” objects. It also reduces bugs, because freeing memory is a tricky process.

What if there were garbage collectors at news sites? The site I work for — and many others — eventually removes articles from the public site. For us, this period is 30 days. After that time, the articles are only available in the paid archives. Although the content management system does let you override the 30-day period, it requires extra time to do. Sometimes we forget, and things that ought to be permanent, like the “how to submit a letter to the editor” page, disappear.

But what if the program that purges old articles only purged things that were unused, rather than everything that was old? The program could figure out which articles were no longer being linked to and move them into the paid archives, rather than moving everything into the archives. The articles from three months ago about a crime and an arrest would remain available as long as they were linked to from coverage of the trial. Your award-winning package from six months ago would remain live as long as it was linked to from the “special reports” page. Rather than forcing Web editors to regularly scour the site for dead links to things that were accidentally purged, they could be safe with the knowledge that nothing important enough to link to would be purged.

Of course, a much simpler and more reader-friendly strategy is to just keep all content around forever and sell ads on the extra pageviews. It’s not for me to say whether that brings in more revenue than paid archives. But if a paid archive is the business decision your site has made, it might be would be worth inventing a system like Java’s garbage collector to keep live everything that ought to be live. In computer programming, accidentally purging things causes embarrassing crashes. On news sites, accidentally purging things causes embarrassing 404s.

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This page last modified on Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 7:59 pm