Magazine article Nieman Reports

The Important History News Organizations Have to Tell: By Creating Archives of Company Records 'We Can Learn How the Paper Developed and Organized Itself, How Editors and Reporters Approached Stories, and How Community Leaders and Ordinary Citizens Responded to Them.'

Magazine article Nieman Reports

The Important History News Organizations Have to Tell: By Creating Archives of Company Records 'We Can Learn How the Paper Developed and Organized Itself, How Editors and Reporters Approached Stories, and How Community Leaders and Ordinary Citizens Responded to Them.'

Article excerpt

Newspapers, once treated like members of the family, welcomed at breakfast tables and at Sunday brunch, are increasingly estranged. In Denver, the venerable Rocky Mountain News has ceased publication. In Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer has gone, replaced online by a shadow of its former self, although no one knows how long that will last. As months and years roll by, more newspapers surely will disappear.

This realization leads us to raise a related issue: Who, if anyone, is going to save our newspapers' archives? With each closure or merger, new ownership or online experiment, archival records are imperiled. News librarians, who are typically custodians of "the morgue" and the digital text files, are often among the first to be laid off as ailing papers cut staff. When the last tear is shed and the lights turned off in a just-laid-to-rest newsroom, little is likely to be done to save what's been filed away. Lost, as a result, will be the back story to the first draft of a community's history.

Local news media are to their communities--and national media are to the nation--what mortar is to bricks. We chiefly think of this as the impact daily news reporting has on citizens' conversations about politics, sports, business or whatever matters to them. "To read a newspaper is to know what town you're in," Michael Sokolove observed in his August 2009 New York Times Magazine article, "What's a Big City Without a Newspaper?"

In this vein, it's reassuring to know that every back issue of the Rocky Mountain News is housed at the Denver Public Library, long a renowned repository for historical Colorado newspapers. But past issues of a newspaper are not the only things worth preserving. The company records are important as well--and for similar reasons. Such files--archivists describe them as "corporate archives"--document a newspaper's history in financial and legal records, through editorial memoranda and correspondence, photographs and other materials. In reading these, we can learn how the paper developed and organized itself, how editors and reporters approached stories, and how community leaders and ordinary citizens responded to them.

To read the behind-the-scenes story of a newspaper in these files is to peek behind the curtain and see the bumps and bruises, along with the joy and anguish, of our community conversation.

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News Archives

Allan Nevins, a leading historian of his day who had a special interest in the press, placed a high value on newspaper archives. In 1956 he made a suggestion over lunch with Arthur Sulzberger and some editors at The New York Times. "I called their attention to the value of an archive preserving confidential materials," Nevins recalled in a speech several years later. "Mr. Sulzberger then and there gave instructions to have such an archive formed; but whether these directions were ever carried out I do not know."

Sulzberger's wishes were, in fact, realized. Before the Times moved to its new quarters on Eighth Avenue in 2007, one could consult a vast collection of files in the basement of the old building on 43rd Street--a dark ink-stained cavern that is central to a recent hilarious roman a clef mystery by Times reporter John Darnton, "Black and White and Dead All Over." In June 2007, the Times donated a large portion of this material--78 linear feet in all--to the New York Public Library, where the now-titled Adolph S. Ochs Papers (1853-2006) have since been catalogued by archivists.

Other troves of material have been similarly saved. The Newberry Library in Chicago has an extraordinary collection of the personal and business papers of Chicago Daily News journalists, thanks to the generosity of newspaper owners and their heirs in Chicago through the years. In 2006, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the Newberry funding to preserve 39 discrete journalism collections and make them accessible. …

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