Story archives separate an established news organization from a new competitor. They provide an essential, unmatched historical record for communities. They are a mostly untapped potential source of revenue and reader engagement.
So why isn’t more thought and effort going into making sure that they are preserved and leveraged?
Old-school methods of preserving print edition newspapers still work pretty well—keeping some copies in a cool, dark place, protected from insects, and replicating them on microfilm with a backup copy at the local library.
The problem is digital, according to Edward McCain of the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.
Only a fraction of the news produced by newspapers today makes the print edition, and there has been an explosion of online-only news outlets.
Many news organizations are a corrupted database, failed server or botched CMS migration away from accidentally deleting a good chunk of the historical record of a community.
McCain, a former photographer who heads the Journalism Digital News Archive project at RJI, has for years been a lonely voice in sounding the alarm.
He tells horror stories about Pulitzer Prize-winning work that’s been lost to the digital “memory hole,” and how there’s a gap from 1986 to 2002 in the Columbian Missourian’s archives due to a server crash that happened one day, or how some publication’s entire archives have been trashed upon their sale to another competing company or a decision to close down.
Referencing the server crash that ate a chunk of the Missourian’s archives, McCain said in a 2013 interview that “the disappearance of 15 years of news, birth announcements, obituaries and feature stories about the happenings in any community represents a loss of cultural heritage and identity. It also has an effect on the news ecosystem, since reporters often depend on the “morgue”—newspaper parlance for their library—to add background and context to their stories.”
And four years later, the second half of his point about those archives rings true: “In other parts of the information food chain, radio and television newscasts often rely on newspapers as the basis for their efforts. This, in turn, can have an effect on the democratic process, since the election process benefits from an accurate record of the candidates’ words and actions.”
McCain’s preaches the “3-2-1 rule”—have three copies of everything, use at least two different methods of backup, and store at least one copy off-site.
But even for news organizations that follow his advice, “born-digital content” presents a unique preservation challenge.
If a news organization shuts down, its owner can choose to continue paying for a server to keep the content up as it was indefinitely, convince someone else to (and local libraries, for example, are still mostly unprepared to confront purely digital preservation questions such as this), or turn their content over to an archiving monetization service such as NewsBank.
But most archiving options aren’t sophisticated in preserving more than basic text and images.
As it is, news organizations have lost an insane amount of video journalism in the past 10 years simply to switchovers in hosting services and formats. With so many predicting that video will become a primary format for formerly text-dominant news organizations, it’s a problem that has to be confronted in a meaningful way.
And if we don’t see some innovation of archiving methods and widespread adoption of it soon, it’s a safe bet that storytelling that departs even further from traditional text will be completely lost to history. A curation of tweets or an interactive graphic isn’t unlikely to migrate well to your next CMS, or survive the demise of the third-party program you used to create or host it.
McCain says we are in the “early days of digital preservation,” pointing out that the news on the web has been a thing for barely more than two decades, compared to centuries of the world confronting preservation of printed information.
If historical preservation isn’t enough, he’s hoping that money will prompt news organizations to get serious about archives.
His department at RJI has offered ideas for monetizing news archives and tips for everyday practices that lead to more usable archives—including making sure that useful metadata is attached to photos, videos and other elements.
And rather than sending readers and local historians to a non-indexed and non-searchable library microfilm machine, why aren’t more newspapers digitizing their 100-plus years of news stories? It could be a source of long-tail web traffic, at a minimum. But with some creativity and effort, it could offer numerous community engagement and special section opportunities.
Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, an organization that supports local independent online news publishers from across the country. He is a longtime former newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news.