Historians and the Preservation of Newspaper Content, Part 3

Part 1 --- Part 2 --- Part 3 --- Part 4

Okay, so we know that owners of newspapers typically preserve copies of the printed edition. But what about the electronic editions of defunct newspapers?

Consider the Rocky Mountain News, which went under a couple of weeks ago. I’m certain that the printed editions of that newspaper were preserved, either by filming, scanning, or digitization. As of this moment, the site is still online. It’s not being updated, of course -- it’s essentially frozen at the moment of that last issue -- but you can still search its old contents. (And it has a fee-based archive that goes back to the 1980s.)

But -- who or what will maintain that site? For that matter, who will own and administer access to that electronic archive?

Websites are like empty houses:  Someone needs to show up once in awhile to make sure the roof’s not leaking and no one’s broken in. Same with abandoned websites. Someone needs to maintain it -- or not. If the site is abandoned, eventually all of its contents will disappear. That's the same as hauling the newspaper's paper documents to the city dump.

Frankly, the thought of these sites vanishing is, well, an unhappy one. If the New York Times goes under (god forbid; it's a planetary treasure), will some deep-pocketed person or organization agree to administer the online site?

But the growing number of defunct newspapers also poses another, paper-related matter, namely, what will become of the paper trail generated in the process of publishing a daily newspaper? For example, the staff of the Rocky Mountain News generated photographs (not all of which landed on the website or in the printed edition); drafts of stories; reporters' notes; telephone records; management memos; and other paper-based documents.

In theory, that material will be boxed for storage, and the entity that owns the company itself will look for a repository for this material. A logical choice is the Colorado State Historical Society, or perhaps Special Collections at the University of Colorado or some other university, or the Denver Public Library.

The catch here is money: Anyone can donate material to a historical society or library. You can donate your shopping lists, kids' drawings, family photos, and anything else your heart desires to save. But unless you also donate some some cash, it can be difficult for the recipient to do much with the material except store it in a warehouse.

That's because the task of sorting through and cataloging that paper-based material requires the services of professional archivists. Like everyone else, archivists don’t work for free, so until and unless an institution can afford to sort, process, and catalog a paper collection, it will sit in boxes. (I hasten to add boxes of archival material are stored in buildings with high-tech controls for humidity and temperature.)

So the short answer to the question that launched this series is that newspapers have been saving their contents, but the future of the paper version of a newspaper is more certain than the future of its online version. Which is completely counterintuitive, but hey, this the Age of E-Quarius. Who knows what will happen?

NEXT: How a historian's research is affected by what is, and is not, saved.