Beyond the technological and legal challenges of ensuring that a careful recording of today’s news is available for future reference are the very real economic challenges. The number of journalists in newsrooms has fallen as precipitously as advertising revenues. As a recent Politico article notes, “Daily and weekly newspaper publishers employed about 455,000 reporters, clerks, salespeople, designers and the like in 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By January 2017, that workforce had more than halved to 173,900” (politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/25/media-bubble-real-journalism-jobs-east-coast-215048).
In the few remaining newsrooms with full-time librarians/archivists, the challenges of news preservation span all media. Messages to the NewsLib discussion list (email email@example.com to sign up) voice concerns about how to manage storage of microfilm (“Do you utilize industrial refrigeration, climate controlled rooms, off-site storage or the tried-and-true method of dumping it in the basement and letting it fester?”) and wholesale loss of digital files during platform migration (“A portion of the database was not converted at all and to this day remains a black hole in our database. The person in charge of the conversion was fired … [but] that did not fix the stripped text, messed-up fields or missing fields, nor bring back the 2 years of missing data.”)
Preservation Roadblocks and Initiatives
In an era where there are more channels through which news can be delivered and outlets that provide their take on the news of the day, there is an historical lack of attention to ensuring future access to today’s news. The rise of the information industry starting in the 1980s provided a monetary incentive for news organizations to provide access to digitally published news content, but production of multiple versions of news products (newsprint, online, mobile) has created challenges regarding what to save and how to represent different versions. Coordination between news industry and information industry interests is required and has thus far been missing.
However, there are encouraging initiatives taking on the challenge of advocating for news preservation; one example is the Journalism Digital News Archive (rjionline.org/jdna). This University of Missouri Journalism School effort, headed by Edward McCain, facilitates discussions between news organizations, memory institutions, and the information industry. Its Dodging the Memory Hole: Saving Online News series brings together “journalists, librarians, archivists and technologists” to strategize about methods for preserving online news. McCain’s two goals, as stated in his introduction to the latest Dodging the Memory Hole event, held on April 27, 2017, at the UCLA library, are to “create a national agenda for saving born-digital news content that appears online” and “identify stakeholder roles: who should be doing what.”
Searchers for Tomorrow
But without a change in attitude by the producers of news content, the imperative to find viable, long-term preservation solutions will remain elusive. When researching our book, we interviewed a male employee at EidosMedia.com, an Italian digital publishing system with many U.S. clients. He indicated that its archiving component, an add-on to the publishing system, was rarely purchased by its news organization customers. As with the elimination of staff dedicated to preservation issues, the price of ensuring a complete and consistent archiving solution is not seen as being worth the money.
What does all of this mean for future news searchers? While we have never had a complete record of news output, the situation going forward will be particularly difficult. In 50 years, we may have better access to the news from 1817 than the news from 2017. Historians, sociologists, genealogists, journalists, and others who rely on yesterday’s news will have a very limited menu of content from which to choose. As in the past, it will be the larger news organizations whose content is likely to survive. The diversity of voices in today’s media ecology (ethnic media, subculture content, hyperlocal or regional coverage) will have disappeared. Anyone trying to track how a major issue facing society (climate change, income disparity, etc.) was debated will not be able to put a diverse timeline of coverage together. As futurist and RAND Corp. employee Jeff Rothenberg quipped back in 1999, “Digital information lasts forever, or five years, whichever comes first” (clir.org/pubs/ archives/ensuring.pdf).