Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Preserving Digital News

The Center for Research Libraries recently issued a report Preserving News in the Digital Environment: Mapping the Newspaper Industry in Transition.

There is also a webinar to discuss the issues of this report, however, as best I can tell, you have to be part of a CRL member institution to participate. I'm hoping that registering as a "self-appointed, honorary" member of some CRL member institution will work as well ;-)

I've also been watching the posted videos of the presentations at the Newspaper Archive Summit held Apr. 10-12 at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.

I'd suggest there are two (but not only two) ways to approach the issue of preserving newspapers..

1) Preserve what newspapers/news providers produce as a record of what they produced.
2) Preserve documentation about local community, often best recorded in the local newspaper.

The  CRC report is actually hardly about preservation at all - it is really about understanding the techniques for how digital news content is created, managed, and presented. My interest lies more in the area of what should we preserve, but I appreciate and think there is good value in developing a deep technical understanding of digital news content creation. It's comparable to  hearing from people who have a deep understanding of medieval bookbinding. Or, as in the case of the recent Permanence Matters conference looking at the production and use of "permanent" paper. This technical knowledge of how items were created and how they must be preserved must be in conversation with the curatorial decisions of what to collect and preserve.

While the permanent paper approach is intended to actually influence the materials content producers use, I don't get the impression that the digital newspaper preservation crowd, at least as represented by this report, is intending to influence how newspaper publishers go about creating and providing access to their content. This report approaches preservation by starting at the source where the product to be preserved is produced. The goal is to understand how the content is created and published and how to use that knowledge to shape its preservation.

While the focus of the report is on the technical aspects, it also, if tangentially, addresses some of the questions of content. "Media convergence and consolidation in the news industry, however, is creating even more uniformity of practice today. As local newspapers are acquired by larger media groups, many production practices are being dictated by the home office." (p. 24) It is not just uniformity of practice, but, and I would argue more importantly, uniformity of content. Do you need to preserve all the mid-market Gannett papers when so much of their content, editorial approach, and formatting is identical?

I think it is important to step back a little and ask ourselves what it is that newspapers provide, and is its value worth preserving. And, how has what newspapers provide changed over their long history. American newspapers of 50, 100, and 150 are quite different creatures.

"The newer model of the news Web, however, is exemplified by seattlepi.com, the Hearst Seattle Media’s “flagship site.” Like the Wisconsin State Journal site, seattlepi.com also focuses heavily on information of local interest, such as crime, regional politics, and local sports teams. But seattlepi.com is even more fundamentally different from its now defunct predecessor, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. It features not only original staff reporting and breaking news, but blogs by staff and readers, links to other journalism and news Web sites, community databases, and photo galleries. Through partnerships with other Seattle media (i.e., radio and television broadcasters), seattlepi.com also has access to video and audio produced by their local staff." (pp. 52-53)

I think the quote above demonstrates one of the promising things I developing in newspaper's websites - and this impression is based on very little research. It seems hat what newspaper websites have more of than their print counterpart is local information. As the report about the Seattle site listed, this local information is gathered from a variety of sources, staff, readers, other sources in the creation of a community information center. If newspapers publishers and libraries were smart they would talk to each other and work together - using that whole "synergy" thing - as they both have things to offer and benefit from such a community information center.

"Their websites function as regional portals to a much larger and more dynamic realm of text, image, and multimedia information, combining with the content produced in their local newsrooms content and applications produced by third-parties and even by consumers themselves. The presence of this content dramatically changes the nature and impact of the news reported and the experience of the user." (p. 53)

One thing I did not read about in this report is the issue of context. Issue and page layout creates a visual/informational context for the news story. In the U.S. Newspaper Project and more currently in the National Digital Newspaper Project the newspaper page is considered important as a provider of context. What does the idea of context mean in the digital realm. The visual context of digital news is fugitive, at best. As newspaper content is more segmented/detachable, the page and its layout is decreasing in importance. How will this decontextualization of new articles affect preservation?

I'm glad to have the opportunity to listen in to these conversations that about the changing shape of news production and preservation, and I'm encouraged by how many people are interested and involved in these discussions.

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