When a newspaper’s front page hits the newsstands, it creates, so the saying goes, the first draft of history. But how much history can news websites contribute, when their "front pages" rarely linger more than a single day? And will the trend towards charging for access to online archives eventually destroy the historical archives of the new media industry?

It was thoughts like these which began to occur to online publishing expert Norbert Specker as he surfed news websites following the events of September 11 last year. "When I saw three different entry pages to CNN within 10 minutes on September 11, I realised: the history of the net was being built – and destroyed – within minutes," he says. Specker, the founder of the influential Zurich-based Interactive Publishing, began taking screen shots of news sites as they updated their coverage hourly. Last week, as part of the many online commemorations of September 11, he re-launched the archive, which includes images of 230 news sites from around the world: www.interactivepublishing.net/september.

Specker believes many of the screen shots are the only witness to what the world’s news sites looked like on that day, since very few online publications keep screen grabs of their pages. The 9/11 archive is a non-profit venture which has been visited by 500,000 people in the past year, says Specker, but this historical document could ultimately become a drain on resources as more and more people visit. However, he believes it’s a "responsibility that cannot be shed like a coat. So either way we have to find a way to ensure the survival of the pages, either by sponsors or co-operating with museums."

Specker is by no means alone in his desire to see web history preserved, despite the commercial pressures. Other notable sites include Google.com, which "caches" old sites, and the Internet Archive in San Francisco, which is a non-profit organisation, supported by donations from organisations like the Smithsonian Institute. Chairman Brewster Kahle first had the idea of archiving internet material back in the 1980s. After co-founding Alexa.com – which created a method of indexing web sites – Kahle founded the Internet Archive in 1996.

It receives a donated copy of Alexa’s index every six months consisting of 10bn web pages dating back to 1996. The Archive’s "Wayback Machine" now receives around 20,000 search requests a day. Despite its popularity, one main threat looms over this laudable venture. With a cash-strapped online publishing world starting to charge for archive access, some publishers are getting highly sensitive about where their content ends up. And there’s plenty of money at stake.

Research firm Jupiter Media Metrix reported last year that archived content online has the potential to become a $6.3bn market by 2006, up from $2.2bn in 2001. "The vast majority of people are happy to be in the archive, but if they don’t we just retroactively remove them," Kahle explains. "A number of publishers have done that because they want to sell access to their own archive."

Actions like this could threaten the integrity of the archive for generations. Kahle believes there should still be a role for non-commercial online archives to record web history. "We have to figure out the mechanism to keep some level of access to newspapers because if the news is not recorded then we enter Orwellian territory – those who control the past control the present; those who control the present control the future." Although there is often intense pressure to put an admission fee on to publisher archives, keeping them "open access" may actually make good commercial sense, according to Specker. He argues that there’s a direct correlation between open archives and the long-term brand image of a news organisation. Media firms which close their digital archives in order to charge for access will prevent their brands becoming "papers of reference" because "many stories live on in links," he says.

There may also be a financial cost – Jupiter says online publishers will lose revenues it if they don’t deal with third- party archives. Online archives are not just attracting attention for historical or commercial reasons, however. Kahle admits US government agencies – under the pretext of anti-terrorism measures – have asked that allegedly "sensitive information" be deleted from the Internet Archive.

Often it has fallen to investigative journalism sites like TheMemoryHole.org to re-publish uncontroversial "removed" information. And it’s not just governmental jitters which endangers the integrity of web archives. Adam Macarthur, an intel lectual property layer with the Eversheds legal practice, points out that archiving websites without permission or licence could potentially constitute a massive breach of copyright. However, when it comes to sites like the Internet Archive, "Whether a media firm would actually bother to take action [against a non-commercial body] is another story."

Patrick White, founder of the British Web Design Association, believes that far from endangering copyright, facilities like the Internet Archive could make copyright disputes far simpler. "If one site has a dispute it can turn to the Archive and check what their site looked like when the alleged infringement took place. And the whole thing is backed by the reputable Smithsonian."

However, not everyone sees the point of archiving the "look and feel" of websites. British design consultant Nico Macdonald, who is writing a book about designing for the internet, believes archiving whole websites with the original appearance intact is largely unnecessary, so long as the raw content (text and images) is captured. "People are driven by email links deep into sites so they don’t see the site’s front page anyway," he says. For Macdonald, sites like the Internet Archive rarely appeal to anyone apart from students of web design history.

How do news sites react to the thought of their pages being archived by someone else? Hugo Drayton, head of Hollinger Telegraph New Media, believes archiving web pages as well as the text doesn’t make sense. "I’m sceptical about the ultimate value since most online news sites don’t show the hierarchy of stories in the same way the printed page does," he points out. The Telegraph has instead been working with interactive agency Olive Software on an experimental project to digitise the actual newspaper into a visual, click-able entity.

The battle to preserve history versus the battle to make money online looks like continuing to rage on. What is clear is that many of our memories of the web continue to be lost. "Since 1994 the web has grown immensely," says Specker. "But without an archive of what the web looked like then and since, the new media industry will have nothing to show for its history." Perhaps it will be condemned to repeat it.

First published: http://media.guardian.co.uk/mediaguardian/story/0,7558,792675,00.html