When I was growing up, my parents subscribed to the morning Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the evening Pittsburgh Press. The Press ceased publishing in 1992, and, since 2018, the Post-Gazette prints only 3 days a week. If this chronology sounds familiar, it’s just a microcosm of the situation in other major cities. Local news is in peril; the sources are not sustainable.
What I didn’t know about as a child was the existence of another highly influential newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, now the New Pittsburgh Courier. It started in 1907 and was renamed in 1967 when new owners took over. It’s a weekly that covers the Black community in the city. Thanks to Newspapers.com, when I do a historical search on a Pittsburgh topic, I get the viewpoints from all three. A reminder: Language used in all three of these papers can be (and is) offensive by today’s standards. I was particularly taken aback by how people of Chinese descent were described in the Courier. Words used to describe the Black population of Pittsburgh reflect the times in both the Press and Post-Gazette. Not always pretty.
What is appropriate to include in newspaper stories has also changed drastically. It was once routine for reporters to check the local hotels’ guest registers and write stories about who was visiting their fair city. Thus, I learned that my great grandmother, with her three children, once visited New Orleans. I simply can’t imagine that type of story appearing in today’s newspapers, although I admit the historical record is fascinating and illuminating. But a sustainable reporting model? No.
Another sustainability issue: Formats are changing. If important essays are published on Medium and newsletters distributed via Substack, what does this mean for the sustainability of library collections? News isn’t the only type of information disappearing; it’s opinions that used to run in newspapers and in books that were essay collections.
What constitutes the historical record is shifting. Back when Pittsburgh had morning and evening newspapers, my parents thought they were well informed. They did not have to confront the myriad news sources, with varying degrees of reliability, that we have today. They did not confront clickbaity headlines or algorithmically determined stories. They never heard of social media. They fully understood, however, that multiple viewpoints existed and easily separated facts from opinions.
When newspaper preservation meant microfilm, we lost the context of color—microfilm is black and white—but gained the ability to read stories exactly as they were published. Digitized versions, however, can be altered. Stories can be removed. The Boston Globe initiative Fresh Start will update older articles about lesser crimes and misdemeanors or hide them from search engines. Other U.S. news outlets are following suit. In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislates the right to be forgotten.
While much of this is laudable—some of these stories should probably never have been published—it opens a wider question: How will future researchers learn about today’s news? What do we decide is newsworthy and true? How do we ensure sustainability of news and the historical record?