When the ‘paper of record’ loses its own records

Uncertain future for legacy of digital news content

In the shadow of office buildings, parking garages and luxury hotels in downtown Austin, a limestone structure houses treasured documents of the city’s past. Just half a mile north of Google’s brand new 35-story office tower sits society’s original search engine: the library.

The Austin Public Library’s Austin History Center aims to procure, preserve, present and provide the historical records that make up Austin’s unique story.

Shelves at the Austin History Center are stacked high with vintage photos and negatives, architectural blueprints, books, maps, defunct magazines, oral history tapes, government records and more. When visitors come to the center for research, they’re often seeking to go through old newspapers.

Tucked away in massive filing cabinets are rolls of microfilm with more than a century’s worth of scanned copies of the Austin American-Statesman print newspapers. Why microfilm instead of hard copies? Newspapers are bulky, and newsprint paper deteriorates rapidly.

While this space holds physical records of newspapers, what about the newspaper websites and the online content within them? Digital media is fleeting and susceptible to link rot, the internet’s ability to preserve information (or lack thereof).

A 2015 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal discovered that Web-only content and multimedia archiving was nonexistent, and that the public had almost no access to digital photo and graphic archives at most newspapers.

Austin American-Statesman Average Circulation

Source: Gannett Co., Inc. Annual Reports. Daily and Sunday combined average circulation is print, digital replica, digital non-replica, and affiliated publications according to the Alliance for Audited Media’s September Quarterly Publisher’s Statements.

Dwindling newsroom staff and low revenue

The Pew Research Center found that newspaper newsroom employment fell 57% between 2008 and 2020, from roughly 71,000 jobs to about 31,000. Exacerbated by economic hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic, about one in ten newspapers experienced multiple rounds of layoffs in 2020.

Mandatory furloughs, shortened workweeks, reduced healthcare coverage, loss of benefits, decreased wages, increasing workload, layoffs and smaller staff are some of the issues journalists are facing in the industry.

Addie Broyles was the food writer at the Austin American-Statesman for 13 years. With more than 20 years of journalism experience, she decided to take a buyout offer in 2021 from Gannett, the parent company of the Statesman. Broyles wrote stories and blog posts, made podcasts, took photos, did social livestreams, put out newsletters, produced videos and more. The number of platforms kept growing in new ways to tell stories and engage with the community.

“I was forming relationships with readers and food bloggers in Austin, choosing to see them as my collaborators and my community, not just an audience of people who were reading stories.”

Newsrooms sometimes switch content management systems for their website, such as during the change of ownership of the Statesman from Cox Media Group to GateHouse in 2018, then to Gannett in 2019. Over time, years worth of stories and blogs become broken links. The aforementioned photos, videos and podcasts are no longer accessible on the web. All these online stories and dialogue and exchanges disappear.

“Around 2010 or 2011, we were going through a content management system change. I would ask in meetings and say, ‘what’s going to happen to the blog archive?’ A lot of online content is gone. I think the years that we started losing content were the years that we also started doing two and three times the amount of content we had been doing,” said Broyles.

“The newsroom staff aren’t the only people who will want those stories one day. What about the people, the subjects of those stories or the people who were really moved by those stories or the future historians who want to know how we handled the pandemic?”

Tighter budgets and smaller staff mean web archiving is not something newspapers are paying attention to. According to the Pew Research Center, the total estimated advertising revenue for the newspaper industry in 2020 was only $9.6 billion, down 25% from 2019.

Source: Gannett Co., Inc. Annual Reports.

Why are archives important?

According to the International Council on Archives: Archives are witnesses to the past. They provide evidence, explanation and justification both for past actions and current decisions. Archives enable society to undertake a wide range of roles that enable civilised communities to take root and flourish, from enabling education and research, providing entertainment and leisure, to protecting human rights and confirming identity. Archives are unique, contemporaneous records and so once lost cannot be replaced.
A 1949 edition of the Statesman is viewed through a microfilm reader. The Austin History Center has a complete run of the Austin American-Statesman since 1871 on microfilm. The newspapers can also be accessed online through the library’s databases.

Paper preservation an easier challenge than saving websites

In 2019, GateHouse and Gannett merged to become the largest newspaper publisher in the country with hundreds of daily newspapers, weekly papers and other specialty publications. With the inability to make a profit, local owners of smaller newspapers sometimes decide to sell to a bigger publisher or anyone who can keep it going. Other times, they just can’t keep going. Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative examined that between late 2019 and May 2022, more than 360 newspapers closed in the US.

Photo from 1965 of Clarence Standard, Statesman Press Foreman (CREDIT: Austin History Center, PICA 29738, N2405(6))

Ana Krahmer is the director of the Texas Digital Newspaper Program at the University of North Texas Libraries. The organization partners with Texas communities, publishers, and institutions to promote standards-based digitization of newspapers and to make newspapers freely accessible on an online archive called the Portal to Texas History.

“We have been contacted by a very small handful of publishers who warn me ahead of time, ‘we’re gonna be selling, we want to make sure you have everything before we sell and we want to sign our agreements.’”

At the moment, the Texas Digital Newspaper Program’s focus is to save and digitize physical hardcopy newspapers. The issue of archiving newspaper websites and all the dynamic digital content within them is a perplexing dilemma.

“It’s just kind of its own animal,” said Krahmer. “The first issue is how quickly it gets changed. If somebody updates a video or adjusts anything on the webpage that they’d put up an hour ago, that original revision’s gonna be lost. You can’t really web archive that quickly. And then another issue is paywalls. A lot of news newspaper websites have materials behind a paywall to log in and view other contents.”

Krahmer mentioned a woman who once found several shoe boxes filled with her grandparents’ newspapers and decided to donate them to the program. At least tangible newspapers can be rediscovered from a defunct newspaper office building or a relative’s attic, then scanned and digitized into high-quality image files. But if a web link to a born-digital news article becomes a 404 error or an embedded podcast audio file says ‘media not found,’ how can anyone access it?

“This topic honesty is something that the news preservation world has been talking about for about 10 years now, and we still haven’t come to a good solution on that part of the web and dynamic web content.”

Newsprint paper deteriorates rapidly, but so do news website links.

A web link of a story from 2016 on statesman.com now leads to a 404 error page that states, “Oh snap! Looks like something went wrong.” When companies decide to change content management systems, migrating data is often a big headache, causing broken links and syntax errors. Embedded items such as photos, videos, and other content, and sometimes the article itself are lost in the process.

Publications Owned By Gannett

In 2019 following the merger with GateHouse, Gannett owned 261 daily and 302 weekly newspapers. By December 2022, Gannett owned 217 dailies and 175 weekly newspapers, a loss of 171 publications.
Daily Newspapers Owned By Gannett

Source: Gannett Co., Inc. Annual Reports.

Weekly Newspapers Owned By Gannett

Source: Gannett Co., Inc. Annual Reports.

Gannett Advertising and Marketing Services Revenue $

Source: Gannett Co., Inc. Annual Reports.
*The increase in revenue for 2020 compared to 2019 was due to acquired revenues related to the GateHouse and Gannett merger. 2019’s numbers only included revenue of the six-week period between the date of acquisition in November and the 2019 fiscal year end.

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