This is a cautionary tale — about what happened to what was once one of the most important websites about journalism on the Internet, and about what happens when you don’t renew your domains on time.
If you’ve been in the digital news business for a while, it’s likely you have fond memories of OJR, the Online Journalism Review, based at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. Starting way back in 1998, OJR was perhaps the best online chronicler of the changes coming to journalism online; as its mission statement put it back then: “Our purpose is to be useful to journalists and anyone interested in where journalism is going in cyberspace.”
paidContent had the business deals, and Romenesko had the memos and job moves, but OJR was great at analyzing what this new medium meant to our old craft. When I started Nieman Lab back in 2008, OJR in its heyday was one of the models I had in mind.
I say “in its heyday” because, at some point along the way, OJR started to feel a little abandoned. The publishing frequency dropped off; the articles became a bit more tips-and-tricks and a bit less analytical. By the end of 2012, the site was posting only one or two new articles a month and it was unclear where it was headed.
In February, OJR announced it was relaunching and shifting towards more of an audience-submission model:
OJR opens a new chapter today with a fresh look and even more of the content you’ve come to trust. Not only that, but we’re looking to involve the greater journalism community in the discussion. We are now accepting submissions from reporters and media observers who can offer keen insight into the future of news.
After that note, though, there were just 12 more posts over the following four months. And after a June 26 piece on The Texas Tribune — silence.
A near-death experience
I can’t truthfully say I noticed at the time — OJR had fallen off my radar some time ago. But when Mark Coddington tweeted September 17 that the site appeared to have disappeared, I felt more than a little sad.
So apparently last week, the Online Journalism Review disappeared: http://t.co/odlvGm9Jnn Too bad – some great writing was housed there.
— Mark Coddington (@markcoddington) September 17, 2013
I checked the domain registry for ojr.org and found that the domain name had expired a few days earlier, on September 11. I emailed someone at USC Annenberg Digital News to alert him about the situation if he didn’t already know — and to say that if USC wasn’t interested in running OJR any more, I’d be interested in helping figure out an afterlife for the site’s archives, which have a lot of really interesting historical material.
“I’d just hate for OJR.org to point to some spam blog or porn site,” I wrote, saying “there are still people who think there’s a big legacy to be kept behind those three letters.”
He wrote back a quick note to say they were working on the situation. For a brief time, the site seemed to come back — but then it disappeared again.
Fast forward to Friday night, when I thought to check in again and see how OJR.org was doing. (Why yes, my life is that interesting, thank you!) The news wasn’t good:
— Joshua Benton (@jbenton) November 16, 2013
The site was up and even had a new article posted — but for some reason it had screwed around with its previous design, switching out its old masthead font (Vast Shadow) for what looked to be the much mocked Comic Sans. It appeared that OJR was going to drag on as a sad ghost of its past. The new article, which I didn’t bother to read, seemed to be something about a Pinterest tool.
Then, for some reason yesterday — in case it wasn’t yet clear that I care about this old website more than I should — I decided to go back for another look. I looked at that new article, which leads off this way:
If you are familiar with Pinterest and got your attention, today One Flare unveiled its very first, one-of-a-kind Australian version: Home Design Ideas — a design inspiration tool powered by 37,000 Australian home servicing businesses.
Oneflare takes advantage of the technology of the worldwide web to introduce to clients the quickest solutions. The link allows signing-up an account to its official homepage — Oneflare Scrapbooks. With over 90,000 users Oneflare Scrapbooks is launching a web-based scrapbook to the largest community of design enthusiasts in Australia.
My first thought, as an editor, was: “Seriously, guys, it’s either One Flare or Oneflare. Can’t be both.” My second was: “I think you’re missing a word in that first clause.” But my third was: “I know we’re past OJR’s heyday, but this seems unusually lame. And a strange topic for OJR to be dealing with.”
So on a whim, I decided to look up the domain registry information again, just to see how that got resolved. And I saw this:
Someone named Marcus Lim in Australia appeared to have taken over control of OJR.org. Wait — what was in that goofy new story on OJR?
“We’re truly excited about launching Oneflare Scrapbooks”, says Marcus Lim, CEO and co-founder of Oneflare. It represents the next step in home design and home improvement. It combines inspiration with action, allowing users to plan, design and execute their projects, safe in the knowledge that they can do thorough research on any trade professionals they are considering to hire. Every user has access to an extensive network of Australian local businesses they can hire to complete jobs around the home.”
Indeed, Marcus Lim is listed on Oneflare’s website as the company’s CEO and founder. (“Marcus is constantly enhancing Oneflare’s online strategy and product development” — I’ll say!)
Signs of subterfuge
So it appeared that Lim (or someone working for him) had obtained control of OJR.org — presumably just by buying the domain once it had expired, although we don’t know that — and created as close of a facsimile of the old site as he could, with a lot of the old content. Then he’d added one new fresh “article” on November 12 that promoted his product — and hoped that no one would notice.
Once you realize something’s amiss, you can there are plenty of other pieces of evidence something’s wrong with OJR.org. The middle column of the site’s homepage has disappeared; the background has moved from white to gray. All author names have been turned into “admin,” the WordPress default login. Looking under the hood, you find that the USC Annenberg and USC logos at the top of the page have URLs like http://ojr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/usc-logo.png. That /2013/11/ directory structure makes it clear they were uploaded to WordPress just this month, not when the redesign launched in February.
Some of the old OJR archives are there, but not all of them. This article from October 2011 is the oldest one on the new, fake OJR.org; the real OJR.org had workable archives back to November 2004. (The stuff pre-2004 existed on the old OJR server, but wasn’t in the WordPress install — you had to go hunting for it separately through Google. This 2002 Staci D. Kramer piece on The New York Times’ e-edition — “a viable option for folks who can’t get the Times easily and have Internet access at 128 bps or higher”! — was live until Lim’s switcheroo.)
Interestingly, when I tried to look up OJR.org’s domain information again a couple hours after my first look, Lim’s name had already been scrubbed using WhoisGuard, which allows domain registrants to hide their identities via a service in Panama. (Don’t worry: I got screenshots.) At this writing, you can still see Lim’s registration info for OJR.org here, although that may change with time, as Google’s cache refreshes.
In it for the PageRank
So why would someone do this? I have to think there’s only one big reason: search engine optimization. OJR.org, because it’s been around forever, has a good reputation in Google’s eyes; it has a PageRank of 7 out of 10, which gives anything on OJR.org a leg up in search over pages on lesser sites, all else equal. (And they rarely are equal.) Oneflare’s own website, for instance, only has a PageRank of 4. It’s doubtful OJR.org in its previous state was getting much web traffic through anything other than search.
There’s nothing morally wrong about grabbing onto an expired domain name and using it for different purposes. (Another great media-about-media site from the old days, Inside.com, will soon be reborn as something new, for instance.) It’s up to Google to realize what’s happened and adjust PageRank accordingly.
But Lim’s doing far more than reusing a domain name. He’s clearly wrong to pretend that his version of OJR.org is actually the Online Journalism Review. Putting those USC and USC Annenberg logos on the site is clearly intended to mislead, and almost certainly legally actionable should USC want to send a cease and desist. And Lim certainly does not own the copyright of those hundreds of old articles that he’s copied and reprinted whole.
I called USC Annenberg’s public relations office earlier this afternoon. I was told the key people are traveling and not immediately available; I’ll be sure to update here when I hear back. UPDATE, 9:45 p.m.: I did hear back from USC Annenberg; here’s their statement:
USC Annenberg is taking steps to regain control of Online Journalism Review, after the domain of OJR.org was allowed to lapse earlier this month. We’re proud of the investment we’ve made into the news outlet over the years — and of all the work so many talented writers and editors have put into it — and hope to continue ownership of it in the future.
I hope, if they can’t wrestle back control of OJR.org, they push out notice through their Twitter and Facebook pages (last updated June 14) that OJR.org is no longer under their control and that new content there isn’t to be trusted.
I also tried to call Marcus Lim; I couldn’t get through at the number he left for the domain, but I did reach the Oneflare office. The woman who answered the phone there said Lim and another person who often deals with the press were both unavailable. At her suggestion, I sent them both an email; I’ll be happy to update here if they respond.
UPDATE, 9:45 p.m.: Soon after this post went up, OJR.org underwent a sudden redesign — removing the OJR archive stories and the USC logos and changing the site name from “Online Journalism Review” to “Online Journal Review.” (I guess they’ll review Moleskines now?) Smart moves! Those take care of the obvious legal problems. They also changed the Comic Sans logo — which was just an aesthetic complaint, not a legal one. They still haven’t return my email or acknowledged their actions. And the site is now solely a spamblog, rather than a spamblog cloaked in an old journalism website. Progress, I guess?
So what can we learn from this debacle?
— Renew your domain names. Back in the early days of the web, domain names cost a fair chunk of change. Now they’re $20 at the most, under $10 if you shop around. If you control any domains, do me a favor and go see when they expire. If you want them to live, go to your registrar and (a) buy up a few years of renewal and/or (b) set them to autorenew with a credit card. If USC had done this with OJR.org, all of this could have been avoided.
— Value your archives. There’s often a good financial reason to value what’s in there; Robert Cottrell was right when he said: “I suspect that the wisest new hire for any long-established newspaper or magazine would be a smart, disruptive archive editor. Why just sit on a mountain of classic content, when you could be digging into it and finding buried treasure?”
But beyond the business case, there’s something like a moral responsibility to keep past work on the web as available as we can. So much of the web I remember from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s is just gone, forever. Brewster Kahle and his essential team at the Internet Archive are basically the only thing keeping our web history alive, and any number of news sites block it from keeping copies of their work. (They just had a fire; give them money.)
If news organizations are going to take their responsibility to inform the public seriously, they can’t be cavalier about letting old stories disappear with every redesign. Breaking old links is a jerk move; erasing years of history is worse. (My offer still stands: I’d be happy to give a good permanent home to the OJR archives, which will have a lot of value to people who study that period in journalism history.)
— Don’t be a jerk. That’s Lim’s lesson, hopefully.