The Vanishing US News Archives

Why a publication's cost-cutting decision matters in higher ed

You won't find
these rankings online

Jim Romenesko reported yesterday that US News, which has had a mainly online existence since 2010, had decided to get rid of its online archives prior to 2007. Since the magazine had been around in various forms but always as a serious news weekly since 1933, and had been online for a couple of decades, that's a lot of missing material.

I was US News's editor for two years, from 1996 to 1998, until the man who was then and now its owner, Mortimer Zuckerman, got so exasperated that he fired me. (Zuckerman also owned the Atlantic then; in 1999 David Bradley bought the magazine and has made it the center of his growing Atlantic Media group.) So allow for possible bias on my part. I've steered clear of US News and its owner since then, but Romenesko asked me along with other US News veterans about this move.

My full reply ("cheesy, surprising, and sad") is on his site, here. Let me emphasize a non-obvious part of this shift, which is what it may mean to people at colleges and universities. Here is that part of what I told Romenesko:

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.

There is a rich literature on the US News rankings question; a good place to start is this recent item by our own John Tierney. I know that US News won't reconsider its basic approach to rankings, but it should find some way to keep the history of what it's done in this field available.

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