I always assumed that newspaper articles had an infinite lifetime. Anything printed in today's newspaper would be stored for some time in the newspaper's archives department as well as at local libraries. Eventually, those papers would be microfilmed and therefore preserved forever. Well, I once thought it was forever.
The world is changing.
In case you haven't noticed, printed newspapers are dropping like flies. Today's economics as well as pressure from the Internet and from broadcast journalism is ruining the business models of printed newspapers. Many papers still follow the same business rules that were created 150 years ago or more, and they simply cannot compete in the digital age. Of course, when a newspaper closes, its archives department closes with it.
When the Rocky Mountain News was declared dead on Friday, February 27, after 150 years of publication, the remains included a web site. Abandoned by the parent company, E.W. Scripps, rockymountainnews.com sits there, just as the paper left it months ago, a death mask of the Rocky. The web site hasn't been updated since February 27.
Having an unchanging web site isn't much of a problem as long as it remains online and unchanged. However, when someone buys the URL, if not before, it will go blank. If nobody buys it, sooner or later the hosting service will "pull the plug" on the newspaper's web site because of non-payment. The digital archives of old print stories will disappear, and so will stories, blogs, and public comment that never existed in any form but digital.
The WayBack Machine, also known as the Internet Archive, at http://www.archive.org will probably capture many of the stories, but not all of them. The Wayback Machine was named after Mr. Peabody’s time-travel contraption in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series. It is funded by donors and foundations. The Wayback Machine takes a snapshot of the web every six to eight weeks, says Robert Miller, the archive’s director of books. Stories and web pages that appear and then disappear within that time never get captured. The snapshots are a little hit-and-miss, with plenty of broken links and material that doesn’t show up because it was hidden behind firewalls. The Wayback Machine also captures very few images, preferring instead to focus on text.
In theory, the Wayback Machine contains every single accessible page of every single URL, all of it set before the public at www.archive.org. That's a great theory, but a quick examination of most any newspaper's pages stored on the Wayback Machine will prove that much of the material is missing.
And how long will the WayBack Machine continue to function? One year? Ten Years? Fifty years? Nobody can predict that one. As great as the Wayback Machine is, we can only plan on it being a temporary solution.
At first glance, the already-created microfilms would appear to be secure. After all, microfilm lasts for hundreds of years, right? On closer examination, however, even that form of storage seems shaky.
Microfilm locked in a vault doesn't do any good for anyone. To be useful, those microfilm masters have to occasionally be copied. The masters remain locked up while the copies are circulated to anyone who wants to read them. From time to time, the copies become worn out and scratched and eventually need to be replaced with new copies.
There is but one problem: only one company is still in business making new microfilm. A senior representative from FamilySearch (sponsored by the Mormon Church) told me this past weekend that five years ago the Church purchased blank microfilms from three different suppliers. Today, two of those suppliers have dropped out of the business because of declining sales. The third company still makes new microfilm but, without competition, is free to charge whatever they wish. In fact, the price of new, unexposed microfilm used to make copies has quadrupled in the past five years. Even worse, representatives from that one remaining company have already stated they don't know how much longer they will remain in business making new microfilm. The demand for new microfilm is dropping so fast that the one remaining company does not expect to keep their one remaining production line in operation much longer. The death of microfilm will occur within the next few years, possibly within months.
Within a very few years, nobody will be able to purchase new microfilm to make new films or even to make distribution copies of existing microfilm masters. So, yes, the microfilm masters may continue to be safely locked up for many years to come, but nobody will be able to make copies for distribution. We, the genealogy public, will be unable to obtain microfilms beyond what we already have in inventory. And what we have will eventually become worn out or badly scratched with no replacements available. Even worse, the remaining printed newspapers will not be microfilmed for lack of film.
We all may collectively own thousands of microfilm readers, but without occasional replacement copies of duplicated microfilms, these machines will eventually become useful only as boat anchors.
On June 8, the Rocky Mountain News' owner, E.W. Scripps, made an announcement that it was finalizing an agreement with the Denver Public Library “to ensure responsible stewardship of the storied newspaper’s archives and artifacts.” The library “would assume ownership of the Rocky’s voluminous archives, including all digital and paper newspaper clipping files,” while the Colorado Historical Society would receive “such other artifacts as signs, photographs, special editions, artwork and other information that documents the history of the Rocky.”
One might assume that “archives” and “digital files” meant that the entire contents of the Rocky’s site will be preserved by the library. But they won’t. A closer examination of the terms of the agreement shows that the library is going to get “photos that appeared in the paper, photos that are outtakes, PDFs of the newspaper for the past four years, streaming video, some other things...”
The agreement does not mention the web pages. Indeed, a lot of the material on the web site was never printed and was never captured as PDF files.
Next, what is the library going to do with the material? Microfilm it? Not likely if they cannot purchase the film. Digitize it? I hope so. Until then, researchers need to make trips to Denver to examine the materials in person.
This is an example of but one newspaper. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of additional examples.
The Society of American Archivists and the Council of State Archivists are meeting together in Austin, Texas, in mid-August, and one of the panels is titled “‘All the News That’s Fit to Keep’: The Challenges of News Preservation in the Digital Age,” and the program’s description of the session wonders: “Can born-digital news be saved? What is the scope of the preservation challenge?”
Good questions, indeed.