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Paper preservers

Conference tackles archival problems facing newspapers

archiving illustration

In the 1960s, Philip Graham described journalism as “the first draft of history.” Although the famous phrase by the former co-owner of The Washington Post alludes to the importance of preserving news, current archival methods provide little assurance — if any — that modern journalism will be accessible to citizens, researchers, historians and genealogists in the future.

“The scary part is that many little communities rely on those archives; it’s their culture,” says Dorothy Carner, head of MU Journalism Libraries. She and a team of MU faculty won a Mizzou Advantage grant that brought together various stakeholders to discuss preservation challenges and potential solutions. MU Libraries and the Reynolds Journalism Institute provided additional funding for the April 2011 conference, which attracted newspaper representatives, copyright experts, scholars who rely on newspaper research, commercial vendors, and stewardship organizations such as libraries and museums.

A major concern has been what happens to the archives of newspapers that go out of business. In the past three years, more than 160 newspapers either closed or stopped publishing print issues, and many of their archives are now untouchable. E.W. Scripps, for example, gave the Rocky Mountain News’ archives to the Denver Public Library, but until issues regarding intellectual property rights are sorted out, the files remain inaccessible.

Carner says the solution could be something as simple as a metaphorical will outlining exactly what happens to a newspaper’s archives if the outlet ceases publication.

The other challenge is how to preserve digital content, including Web-only articles and multimedia.

“Many think that if it’s on a computer, it’s digitally archived,” Carner says. “But in five years, we won’t have the same hardware or software, and much of that content may not be readable.”

Because of copyrights, newspaper companies are largely against having an institution such as the Library of Congress use software to capture their website content. Therefore, part of the conference focused on incentives for commercial entities to invest in their own archival preservation.

Carner hopes this will just be the first of several meetings to help hash out these issues.

“By bringing everyone together, we hope to build trust, let everyone express their reservations and fears, and come up with some common ground,” Carner says. “I think the Missouri School of Journalism should be the hub for conversations like this.”

Recorded sessions of the April conference can be viewed here.

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