Value, importance of good news archives can’t be overstated

  • News Archives: the untapped resource
    Caught in the struggle to survive, most newsrooms today are failing to tap the extensive value of the news content they’ve already produced, often at great cost over the years.

Editor’s note: This article is the first of three excerpts of the RJI Fellowship research report: “News Archives: the untapped resource.” See links at end for more.

News archives are a resource not often discussed in newsrooms today. The once rich repositories of carefully preserved news and research data, tended by trained librarians and staff experts are mostly gone now or hanging on by a thread, with notable exceptions at the largest media organizations.

Once a point of pride in newsrooms across the country, most news archives and staff succumbed to financial pressures of recent decades as news organizations struggled to survive the shift to digital news channels that dissolved old business models. In their place we now see mostly limited, inadequate substitutes:

  • Impersonal, third-party syndication services housing automated and incomplete uploads of news story text, often with few if any visuals or presentation context, especially for digital.
  • Little to no descriptive metadata, the once-critical details that trained librarians provided to distinguish feature stories from breaking news, profiles from Q&As, metadata that helped ensure journalists could find specific stories they needed from the past.
  • Reproductions of older content on modern web CMS platforms, often missing key elements such as images, maps, graphics, links and metadata that don’t match today’s ever-shifting digital display preferences or didn’t survive intervening tech transitions.
  • CMS databases that often extend back only to the last system migration, with little metadata beyond a publishing date and an auto-generated ID number.

While these changes may have been difficult to avoid in the newsroom struggle to survive, the widespread cuts in news preservation efforts leave a widening gap in the capabilities of the news organizations to protect their content as part of the public record, to provide adequate public access and to tap this content for critical context and background that reporters and readers need to cover and understand today’s breaking news.

It doesn’t have to be this way. After talking with more than 50 different newsrooms in North America and Europe for this research, one of the key reasons I observed for the current state of affairs in news preservation is the lack of understanding of the unique value in vast stores of existing news content.

With experts largely gone, there’s a growing gap in recognizing the genuine value of content stored deep in the bowels of a CMS, an archive system, or outsourced to a third-party syndication service. It doesn’t matter whether the collection goes back two years, 10 years or 100 years. This is content that’s already owned, already published, generated through an investment of time and money to create and send out into the world.

It’s not just yesterday’s news. It’s the background needed for today’s news. It can help news consumers across political and cultural divides who struggle with the uncertainty and conflict of 21st Century life, who seek context and meaning in the daily tidal wave of news that rushes past us 24 hours a day.

It can tell readers why a new Supreme Court decision happened, unearthing cases in the past that determine the precedents for today’s decisions. It can inspire a community with the heroism and courage it took to tackle injustices that made life better for people today. Or it can help readers understand how an issue such as real estate redlining and discriminatory government policy lingers in so many of today’s neighborhoods, decades after these policies were outlawed.

In short, news archives have tremendous potential value. At a time when newsrooms need all the benefits they can get in revenue, web traffic and reader engagement in a highly polarized society, this is one asset that has proven time and again to deliver for communities across the country. And it can help play a critical role in building or rebuilding a trust relationship with the communities each newsroom covers.

This report contains the findings of a year-long research effort into the value of good preservation practices to the news publishing and broadcast industry, and the benefits this can provide to today’s struggling newsrooms.

The research for this project involved conversations and communications with news reporters and editors, technology staff, managers and news library staff at dozens of news organizations in 2019 and 2020. Through these contacts I gathered examples of what newsrooms are doing now, what’s working for them in putting their archives to use, why these are successful, what tools and technologies are involved, and what results and outcomes they have seen.

That’s what you’ll find in this report: excellent examples to replicate, plus information on how they work, and ideas on how you may be able to apply them in your newsroom.

This is part of a series of excerpts of the RJI Fellowship research report: “News archives: The untapped resource.” Here are links to all three parts:

Read the full report, with full details on ways newsrooms are tapping their news archives. 

Also, don’t miss the larger, in-depth research project for which this was a companion report, “Endangered But Not Too Late: The State of Digital News Preservation.”

Neil Mara  
2019–2020 RJI nonresidential fellow


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