Monday, May 18, 2009

In the News…Or Not

Caveat lector: This is a long rant. Read at your own risk. [Updated June 10, 2009.]

I’ve subscribed to The Hartford Courant, the state’s only major newspaper, for longer than I can remember. Like many other newspapers, The Hartford Courant has undergone significant changes in the past several years, particularly in the ways in which print and online publishing overlap and complement each other. I understand and accept many of these changes, and as one who makes her living in the online world, I embrace the potential for better storage and retrieval that online formats allow.

One of the things I can’t understand, though, is the sloppy and inconsistent way that The Courant has established its dual presence in print and online media. The publication can’t seem to decide what to do with itself. Is it a print paper? Is it an online news source? How do the print and online editions overlap, interact, and complement each other? Which is the edition of record? That is, which is the official edition, where one should be able to track down and cite all articles that are published in The Courant, whether print or online? How does The Courant share resources with its sister publications, and how does The Courant make materials available to its subscribers and the general public? To the casual reader, these questions may not matter much, but for researchers and others who depend on reliable news sources, they present many challenges.

It used to be that all (or nearly all) of the articles that appeared in The Courant’s print editions were also published online at The Courant’s website, http://www.courant.com/. This made it easy to retrieve articles long after a print copy had gone to the recycling bin. Now, even with my multiple paid subscriptions to The Courant’s print edition, online edition, and archives (back to the 18th century!), I find that it is simply impossible to find some articles easily, especially after more than a few days have elapsed.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, the problem has several aspects. First, not all the articles in the print edition are available online. Second, not all the articles in The Courant’s website are indexed in its search engine; they might be buried in the site, but not easy to retrieve. Third, The Courant jettisons some of these articles from its website within a matter of days. Some of these items disappear altogether, while some are (apparently) made available through the website of The Chicago Tribune, which, like The Courant, is owned by The Tribune Company. (That’s right, you have to go to the website of a Chicago newspaper to read local Hartford-area news. Go figure.)

Here’s an example of what happened to The Courant’s review of CONCORA’s March 22 all-Bach concert. A nice review had been published in the print edition of The Hartford Courant on Tuesday, March 24 (page C1.) It had also been posted to The Courant’s website early that morning (before 5:00 a.m.). The review had been published online at:

http://www.courant.com/entertainment/music/reviews/hc-hsoconcorarev.art.artmar24,0,3990043,print.story
[UPDATE: When I clicked on this link on June 10, 2009, it took me to
http://www.courant.com/topic/. A search on "CONCORA" yields nothing. Back to the story.]

Now, if you click on this link [that is, the original link], you are taken, not to http://www.courant.com/, but to this page at The Chicago Tribune:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/topic/entertainment/music/classical-music/01011001.topic

This is the classical music page at The Chicago Tribune’s website. OK, I can understand this, even though I don’t like it – both papers are owned by the same company. But where’s the review of CONCORA’s Bach performance at this site? Hmm. Try searching for it; it’s not there. [UPDATE: As of June 10, 2009, same results.]

So how could one find this review? Does it exist online anywhere, any more? Let’s try searching by the headline, a good method for Google. In the print copy that I saved from March 24, the headline reads “An Intelligent Rendering of Bach.” Nice distinctive headline; should be easy. Searching it (enclosed by quotation marks) in Google yields exactly three hits. Two are from unrelated items about Bach. The third is from Lexis Nexis, a paid news service. But I don’t want to pay for this article; I’ve already paid for it with my print and online subscriptions to The Courant. Grr!
Oh, I just remembered – in The Courant’s short-lived online version of this review, the headline writer used a stunning misspelling, and none of the editors or proofreaders caught it. The review was actually published as “An Intelligent Rendering of Back,” so I would have to search for it with the incorrect spelling. (Talk about adding insult to injury. This error survived online for several days, even after I asked The Courant to correct the spelling; as you’ll see below, it persists.)

OK, back to Google to search on this incorrect headline. Result: lots of hits. The first two are from topix.com, a news aggregator. No help here; the first of two Topix links takes me to the useless Chicago Tribune page, while the second link takes me to a Topix page with entries for “Recent Symphony Discussions.” I guess this is because the original review mentioned The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, with whom CONCORA performed on March 22.

The next two hits in Google’s list are from weblo.com, a similarly useless aggregator. The fifth hit is to my own blog, Quodlibet, where I posted news about The Courant’s review back in March (read it HERE). The sixth and seventh hits are to healthhaven.org (???), but clicking through to that site dumps me at an empty page. Very helpful, indeed.

The eighth hit is oh, so tantalizing; it shows the target headline (albeit misspelled) and the first few lines of the review, along with this URL:

xml.courant.com/entertainment/music/reviews/hc-hsoconcorarev.art.artmar24,0,774186.story

Hooray! This must be the lost review at The Courant’s website. CLICK! Silly me. This link takes me back to The Chicago Tribune and (as of this morning, May 18) 1,689 news stories about classical music, but none about CONCORA.
[UPDATE: As of June 10, 2009, the link takes one to http://xml.courant.com/topic/ -- not helpful.]

The next Google hit takes me to the “Symphony Forum” at boardreader.com, an aggregator of discussion groups. Oh, this is tempting. The board displays a comment I left on The Courant’s online review on March 24… but when I click to read the whole review I am routed back to…Topix.com, where I find a link…back to the useless Chicago Tribune page!

Do I dare go back to the Google hit list? Why not – how much more absurd can this get? (It’s sort of like being in some futuristic novel…endless white, curving corridors, with door after door…each one opens to the same grinning brainless head…) (OK, take a deep breath...back to Google.)

The next hit is to… iwantalyrics.com!! When I click through, I see abstracts from about a dozen news stories from various global news publications. At this point, one does indeed seem remotely relevant: “Hug It Out New Yorker, United States And you have all these dark voices in your head that we all know: 'Maybe I should kill myself.' 'Am I ever going to make it?' 'Am I ever going to be successful?'” Now that’s probably the most relevant result I’ve had so far!

The next-to-to-last Google entry is this:
Music News & Information from The Hartford Courant -- Courant.com
CONCORA, HSO Deliver An Intelligent Rendering Of Back. Kathy Mattea Gives A Moving Performance In Storrs. Jazz Guitarist Julian Lage Shows Skill And Flair ...
xml.courant.com/entertainment/music/ - 102k - Cached - Similar pages

Looks good! But when I click on the “Music News…” link shown above, I end up at The Courant’s main music page…but there is no Bach review there. Again, I try searching The Courant’s main site; I find a review of CONCORA’s May 3 “Sonic Spectacular” concert (act now while supplies last!) [GONE as of June 10, 2009!] and some calendar listings from 2008, but that’s all. But when I click on the link for “Cached” I find Google’s cache of the older Courant page, described by Google as follows: “This is Google's cache of http://xml.courant.com/entertainment/music/. It is a snapshot of the page as it appeared on Mar 25, 2009 05:01:20 GMT. The current page could have changed in the meantime.) (Really?) When I scroll down the page....there it is! "CONCORA, HSO Deliver an Intelligent Rendering of Back." When I click through I go to....the useless Chicago Tribune page!

It seems so fitting that the final entry in Google’s hit list should be the most bizarre:

Dentist Countertenor News: Latest Dentist Countertenor Headlines ...
CONCORA, HSO Deliver An Intelligent Rendering Of Back. Hartford Courant - ‎45 minutes ago‎. The aria "Domine Fili unigenite," often sung by an alto, ...news.caliandental.com/Countertenor.htm - 31k - Cached - Similar pages

Dentist Countertenor News??? (Is this P.D.Q. Bach??? He did write a piece for “Bargain Counter Tenor,” after all…) OK, I’ll click… I can’t resist finding out what this is. … Of course. It’s a web site for a cosmetic dentist in White Plains, New York. Why am I surprised? But the web page is empty, offering only this forlorn message: “No news stories found for this search term. Please try again.”

I’ll try the “Cache” function again….Hmm; it seems that this dentist has a news filter set up to retrieve stories about countertenors. There are several reviews and news stories, including a link to The Courant's CONCORA review. Let’s be daring and click through… Surprise! I am taken back to… the useless Chicago Tribune website! Why do I feel like a squirrel in a cage?

All of the searches described above were executed in Google’s web search function. If you try to search the headline phrase “intelligent rendering of” in Google News, the first hit pretends to be to The Courant’s web site, but of course it is a link to the dead-end Chicago Tribune page. And when I actually click on the link, the processing to get to the Chicago Tribune page takes a long, long time, even on my brand-new PC. A blog search of “intelligent rendering of” plus “bach” turns up this blog, Quodlibet, as well as one unrelated hit.

The review is available at factiva.com and other professional database aggregators, but these are generally available only to research specialists on a fee or pay-per-view. And why should I pay again for material for which I’ve already paid??

By the way, the review exists in The Hartford Courant’s online archives, but again, only on a pay-per-view basis. Here’s what The Courant offers as the Abstract (Document Summary) in the archive: “In one culminating moment, the eight voices telescoped into a single choir of four voices, and the altos, tenors and basses began an entrancing chromatic fugue on a biblical text.” At least they corrected the spelling in the headline (replacing "Back" with "Bach") before they archived it. I guess we should be thankful for small miracles.

You might wonder if I have contacted The Hartford Courant about these issues and concerns. No, and I don't plan to. Any business or organization worth its salt these days keeps a careful eye on its online presence and reputation (often by hiring people like me), so they will probably find this entry on their own. If they don't, then shame on them. In any case, I doubt that they will take action to correct the deficiencies. The situation that I've described above is the result of conscious decisions on their part, not merely mismanagement or incompetency. They already know. Will they choose to improve their product? Now that would be news.

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