James Fallows: Deleting U.S. News archives ‘seems cheesy, surprising, and sad’

Update: James Fallows also has an Atlantic post about the U.S. News archives.

I asked James Fallows, a former U.S. News & World Report editor, what he thought about the magazine deleting content that was published before 2007. His response:

I’m not looking for fights with the current US News management, but — since you ask — at face value this seems cheesy, surprising, and sad. In reverse order:

James Fallows

James Fallows

Sad, because the work of so many generations of reporters, editors, photographers, and illustrators is essentially vaporized. Saying that people can use (expensive) Nexis or the bound volumes is like saying they should go to the microfiche room.

Surprising, because so much of the journalistic world has been working in the opposite direction. The Atlantic is just one of the many publications that have kept laying out money to digitize their pre-Internet archives and bring them online.

Cheesy, well …

There’s a group that may be more concerned by this decision than people whose words, drawings, or photos ever appeared in the magazine. That would be anyone involved in higher ed, whose world has been so heavily affected, for better and worse, by the US News rankings juggernaut since the 1980s. In my view the rankings have done more harm than good, but either way they have been very important. And as far as I can tell with a quick search, the first few decades of these rankings, plus explanations of their changing methodology, have also now disappeared from the public web. I hope they still exist somewhere, but so far most of the links I’ve found have come up dead, for instance the previously valid ones on this page, or here or here. This U.S. News page has a list of all past-years’ rankings, but none of them appears to have a valid link. Normal web searches bring up very few pre-2007 US News results at all. Try it yourself: a web search for “US News Best Colleges 2002” etc.

A specific example: in 1999 the rankings went through a controversial change (in which I played an indirect part), resulting in Caltech temporarily shooting to the top above the normal Ivy Leaguers. You can read about that and related controversies in Slate, or the Washington Monthly (also here), or the National Opinion Research Center, but (it appears that) you can’t find the surveys themselves, and their presentation of data, on the public internet. Since the magazine’s identity and business model are so closely tied to rankings now, and since the rankings have been so consequential in higher ed’s evolution, I hope the magazine will at least keep this part of its heritage alive.

* U.S. News & World Report deletes content published before 2007 (jimromenesko.com)