Magazine article Information Today

Ephemeral No Longer: How Databases Perpetuate the Newspaper

Magazine article Information Today

Ephemeral No Longer: How Databases Perpetuate the Newspaper

Article excerpt

Ephemeral No Longer: How Databases Perpetuate the Newspaper

"Journalism is ephemeral," a New York Times editorialist wrote recently in a piece about waste disposal. The writer was referring to the fact that newspapers last only a day or so before being tossed in the garbage with the fish heads.

Toss though you may, journalism is no longer ephemeral. Each work of the Times and more than 70 other North American newspapers and dozens of magazines are now preserved in vast computer databases such as Nexis, Vu/Text and Data Times.

Nexis, for example, perpetuates eight years of the New York Times. All one has to do is type a few words on a computer keyboard and send them over telephone lines to the Nexis computers in Dayton, Ohio. The computer searches its files and sends back all stories that contain the specified words.

Often, the kind of research that can be done in such a database would be impossible to duplicate using print or microfilm. The unique qualities of electronic text retrieval derive from the fact that each word, "ephemeral" included, is made an index term much like one found at the back of a non-fiction book. With any word fair game for retrieval, one can search for an almost unlimited number of word combinations. The total number of ways in which a 13-word combination can be selected from a 52-word story, for instance, is about 635 billion.

The online database is a revolutionary new research tool. It perpetuates the written word and allows us to use it in a myriad of new ways. Here are some examples:

Preserved with Specificity: Because the computer keeps track of each word it stores, I can use the database as a counting device. In only takes a few seconds to find that the Times used the word ephemeral 731 times since 1980, but has used ephemerA only 186 times, a fact thet probably won't escape the attention of the equal-ephemera militants.

I can also pluck out stories in which two or more terms appear in proximity. For example, if I ask the computer to search for each instance where the Times mentions ephemeral within five words of baseball, I get a story that discusses the general managership of the Yankees, "...that most ephemeral of all baseball jobs. …

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