Dodging the Memory Hole: Collaborations to Save the News

Dodging the memory hole graphicThe news is often called the “first draft of history” and preserved newspapers are some of the most used collections in libraries. The Internet and other digital technologies have altered the news landscape. There have been numerous stories about the demise of the newspaper and disruption at traditional media outlets. We’ve seen more than a few newspapers shutter their operations or move to strictly digital publishing. At the same time, niche news blogs, citizen-captured video, hyper-local new sites, news aggregators and social media have all emerged to provide a dynamic and constantly changing news environment that is sometimes confusing to consume and definitely complex to encapsulate.

With these issues in mind and with the goal to create a network to preserve born-digital journalism, the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri sponsored part one of the meeting Dodging the Memory Hole  as part of the Journalism Digital New Archive 2014 forum, an initiative at the Reynolds Institute. Edward McCain (the focus of a recent Content Matters interview on The Signal) has a unique joint appointment at the Institute and the University of Missouri Library as the Digital Curator of Journalism. He and Katherine Skinner, Executive Director of the Educopia Institute (which will host part two of the  meeting in May 2015 in Charlotte, N.C.) developed the two-day program which attracted journalists, news librarians, technologists, academics and administrators.

Cliff Lynch, Director of the Coalition of Networked Information, opened the meeting with a thoughtful assessment of the state of digital news production and preservation. An in-depth case study followed recounting the history of the Rocky Mountain News, its connection to the Denver, CO community, its eventual demise as an actively published newspaper and, ultimately, the transfer of its assets to the Denver Public Library where the content and archives of the Rocky Mountain News remain accessible.

This is the first known arrangement of its kind, and DPL has made its donation agreement with E.W. Scripps Company openly accessible so it can serve as a model for other newspapers and libraries or archives. A roundtable discussion of news executives also revealed opportunities to engage in new types of relationships with the creators of news. Particularly, opening a dialog with the maintainers of content management systems that are used in newsrooms could make the transfer of content out of those systems more predictable and archivable.

Ben Welsh, a database producer at the Los Angeles Times, next debuted his tool Storytracker, which is based on PastPages, a tool he developed to capture screenshots of newspaper websites.  Storytracker allows for the capture of screenshots and the extraction of URLs and their associated text so links and particular stories or other content elements from a news webpage can be tracked over time and analyzed. Storytracker is free and available for download and Welsh is looking for feedback on how the tool could be more useful to the web archiving community. Tools like these have the potential to aid in the selection, capture and analysis of web based content and further the goal of preserving born-digital news.

Katherine Skinner closed the meeting with an assessment of the challenges ahead for the community, including: unclear definitions and language around preservation; the copyright status of contemporary news content; the technical complexity of capturing and preserving born-digital news; ignorance of emerging types of content; and the lack of relationships between new content creators and stewardship organizations.

In an attempt to meet some of these challenges, three action areas were defined: awareness, standards and practices and legal framework. Participants volunteered to work toward progress in advocacy messaging, exploring public-private partnerships, preserving pre-print newspaper PDFs, preserving web-based news content and exploring metadata and news content management systems. Groups will attempt to demonstrate some progress in these areas over the next six months and share results at the next Dodging the Memory Hole meeting in Charlotte. If you have ideas or want to participate in any of the action areas let us know in the comments below and we will be in touch.

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