A Public Record at Risk: The Dire State of News Archiving in the Digital Age
This research report explores archiving practices and policies across newspapers, magazines, wire services, and digital-only news producers, with the aim of identifying the current state of archiving and potential strategies for preserving content in an age of digital distribution. Between March 2018 and January 2019, we conducted interviews with 48 individuals from 30 news organizations and preservation initiatives. What we found was that the majority of news outlets had not given any thought to even basic strategies for preserving their digital content, and not one was properly saving a holistic record of what it produces. Of the 21 news organizations in our study, 19 were not taking any protective steps at all to archive their web output. The remaining two lacked formal strategies to ensure that their current practices have the kind of longevity to outlast changes in technology.
Meanwhile, interviewees frequently (and mistakenly) equated digital backup and storage in Google Docs or content management systems as synonymous with archiving. (They are not the same; backup refers to making copies for data recovery in case of damage or loss, while archiving refers to long-term preservation, ensuring that records will still be available even as formatting and distribution technologies change in the future.) Instead, news organizations have handed over their responsibilities as public stewards to third-party organizations such as the Internet Archive, Google, Ancestry, and ProQuest, which store and distribute copies of news content on remote servers. As such, the news cycle now includes reliance on proprietary organizations with increasing control over the public record. The Internet Archive aside, the larger issue is that their incentives are neither journalistic nor archival, and may conflict with both. While there are a number of news archiving initiatives being developed by both individuals and nonprofits, it is worth noting that preserving digital content is not, first and foremost, a technical challenge. Rather, it’s a test of human decision-making and a matter of priority. The first step in tackling an archival process is the intention to save content. News organizations must get there.
The findings of this study should be a wakeup call to an industry fond of claiming that democracy cannot be sustained without journalism, one which anchors its legitimacy on being a truth and accountability watchdog. In an era where journalism is already under attack, managing its record and future are as important as ever. Local, independent, and alternative news sources are especially at risk of not being preserved, threatening to leave critical exclusions in a record that will favor dominant versions of public history. As the sudden Gawker shutdown demonstrated in 2016, content can be confiscated and disappear instantly without archiving practices in place.
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