While many professional journalists fondly remember the work they did in college — covering townie news for the university paper or radio station — some are trying to erase their past work from the Internet because it shows up prominently on search engines like Google (GOOG).
The Chronicle of Higher Education has a nice feature about the subject in its May 15 issue, called “Alumni Try to Rewrite History on College-Newspaper Web Sites.”
But it turns out this is more common than we thought. Someone from my alma mater — Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism — is petitioning the school paper right now to remove some of their columns from the site that they’re not particularly proud of. In this case, the paper wouldn’t delete the articles — that’s really crossing the line — but it might consider hiding them from Google, which could be less troublesome.
Here’s an email sent to our alumni listserv last night, with names removed:
I’m somewhat loath to send this out to everyone, but I think it may spark a valuable conversation, and I’m hoping to find some folks who are in a similar situation. Here it is:
In the fall quarter of my last year at Northwestern, I wrote what turned out to be a pretty miserable weekly column for the Daily Northwestern. It quickly became clear to me (and, I’m sure, my readers) that column-writing was not my forte, but since I had made a commitment, I saw the quarter through and wrote the columns I had promised to write. The problem now is that, thanks to the Daily’s unbelievable Google mojo, some of those admittedly bad columns appear high up on the first page of my own Google search results. (Ok, look them up if you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.) My professional work – work I’m actually proud of – for much larger, national publications is buried down below.
I now find myself in a bit of a battle with the Students Publishing Company Board. They’ve (understandably) refused to take the stories down, but I was told that if I assemble a group of alums who share my frustrations, our opinions may be considered and “darkening” the stories — a.k.a. keeping them on the site as is, but making them invisible to major search engines — could be a possibility.
Several friends (who wrote columns they now fear future employers could see as offensive, immature or simply poorly written) have expressed interest in teaming up with me on this project. I’d like to know whether anyone else out there would like to join us – and I’d also be interested in hearing what alumni think about this issue in general.
This isn’t just a problem for current practicing journalists. One of the stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education piece is a Marine who doesn’t want his coworkers to find out what he used to think about “domestic politics, the wars, and economic policy.”
So what’s a paper to do here? Deleting anything because someone regrets it later is a bad idea. But college is supposed to be a learning experience, after all. So is modifying “robots.txt” a little — or modifying a first or last name to a more anonymous initial — to hide those old, now-regrettable columns from Google as objectionable?