A project of Democracy Fund

September 28, 2014

How Newsrooms Can Make the Most of Their Archives

(This post builds on slides and research by Debbie Galant, Joe Amditis of the NJ News Commons, where the post originally appeared)

In 1950 William Faulkner wrote “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” in his novel Requium for a Nun. However, the quote gained renewed attention in 2008 when then-candidate Obama gave a major speech on race in America. Obama was tapping into the archives of American culture to add context to the news of the day and connect that moment to the long and troubled history of race in America.

The Internet has made this idea of the past living alongside – and interwoven with – the present more true now than ever. Today, even relatively new newsrooms have vast and quickly growing archives of work to tap into and build upon. These archives hold huge potential to add context to current events, fuel community engagement and even serve as a new revenue stream. In fact, the New York Times innovation report said that taking advantage of archived content was one of the big missed opportunities for the Times.

On September 18, Debbie Galant, Joe Amditis and I did a training at the NJ News Commons on how to tap into news archives for “fun and profit.” You can see our slide deck here and check out the guide for turning archives into e-books here. Below are our notes and presentations from the training, with links to additional tools and readings.

What Kinds of Content Can be Repurposed?

  • Stories on a particular issue (controversial redevelopment, natural disaster)
  • Stories on a venue or landmark, particularly if it is slated for demolition or big change
  • Recipes and restraint reviews
  • Celebrities, political and cultural (both local and national with local roots)
  • Remembrances, profiles and human interest stories
  • High school sports stats and stories
  • Season evergreen content: Back to School, Mothers’ Day, Valentines Day, New Year’s, Memorial Day
  • Just about anything….

What Can You Do With Your Archives?

Below are some of the ideas we discussed on the call with a comprehensive list of links and resources at the bottom of the post.

  • 90951263_fda343580a_oCreate collections – Joe Amditis has compiled a bunch of resources and written a brief guide for creating e-books from your archives. Others have created printed cookbooks, coffee table books and more. These books (both physical and digital) can be sold or used as membership benefits for people who donate or sign up for your email list.
  • Make your archives more social – Social media accounts for news archives like NPR’s Tumblr and WNYC’s Twitter account illustrate the potential and popularity of highlighting relevant content from your archives. However, just slipping in timely and interesting content into your current Facebook and Twitter streams could pay off. A number of news organizations are mixing old and new links on social media to drive traffic. Take advantage of meme’s like Throwback Thursday (#TBT). WNYC also does a weekly newsletter of archived content.
  • Celebrate your anniversary – Both the Wall Street Journal and WNYC celebrated major milestones this year (WSJ – 125, WNYC – 90) and both leveraged their archives in creative ways. There are great timeline tools available to help do this. Debbie Galant suggested that every year, on the anniversary of your publication’s launch, celebrate the best and most popular of your stories over the year on a special page. Sell advertising on that spot to let institutions in town celebrate with you.
  • Gamify your archives – Quizzes are all the rage right now, and they are a great way to use your archives. For example, create a quiz like “What Town Should You Live In?” and have the final page feature great articles about each of the possible towns. Or create a local trivia app, like WHYY’s Philly Quizworks, that features news articles about quirky facts and history of your area.
  • Add context to current reporting – Tools like ly and the wordpress plug-in Zemanta can help automatically curate related content from your archives to help give people a longer view of an issue and add context to the news of the day. You can also create your own side bar with links to past stories or other reporting on an issue.
  • Be a community hub for archival content – News organizations are well positioned to work with local libraries, historical societies and universities to become digital hubs for compelling local history. These places often need help digitizing their own archives and journalists are often already using their content for reporting.

A Little Advice

Prior to the training, I talked with a few professionals who are working on archival projects with newsrooms in print, radio and digital. Thanks to Edward McCain, Ann Wootton and Andy Lanset for their input. Here are a few pieces of advice they offered for those just getting started with their archives:

  • Backups vs archives – A backup is not an archive. A backup is optimized for storage and replacement. An archive is optimized for organization and discovery. Archives also emphasize preservation, and focused on formats that will not degrade or become incompatible later. Newsrooms need both backups and archives.
  • Caged in by content management systems – Poor content management systems, sloppy tagging and other technical issues often hinder the use of news archives. Edward McCain of the Reynolds Journalism Institute wrote, “Starting with a new content management system can be exciting, but you should place a high priority on how you get out of that system. Will you be able to capture all the value you have invested in the metadata and formats you have created over the years?”
  • Protect your work – If we agree that our archives are valuable, then we need to treat them as such. The Columbia Journalism Review recently reported that a survey found that found that 27% of hybrid news and 17% of digital news sites reported “significant losses of news content due to technical failures.” The Columbia Missourian, for example, lost 15 years of past work in one computer crash.
  • It’s up to us – Ann Wooton, the founder of Pop-up Archives noted that there are important initiatives like the National Digital Newspaper Program (a partnership of the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities) which are helping save the legacy of print journalism for future generations. But there is no similar effort for “born digital content.” That’s why we need news start-ups to have training and resources to protect their work.
  • Rights and accuracy – As you reuse archival reporting and content be sure you know what rights you have over images and other media in the pieces. Those rights may not allow for certain kinds of reuse. Also, consider what information may have changed and if you need to issue corrections for old articles you are resurfacing.

If these issues are interesting to you be sure to follow, and possibly attend, the November event “Dodging the Memory Hole” at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Further Resources and Readings

Archives in action: WSJ Archives, WNYC Archives, NPR Archives, New York Times Archives, PopUp Archives, Internet Archives



Photo by Ben McLeod, used under creative commons.