Expert comment: Why it’s vital to preserve history with digital news

April 20, 2021
Contact: Eric Stann, 573-882-3346, StannE@missouri.edu

Edward McCain

Edward McCain

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

Before smart devices existed and digital journalism became more prevalent, journalism archives often consisted of paper copies. Nowadays, with the rise of the internet, the possibility of losing digitally archived content from newsrooms is on the rise.

Edward McCain, the digital curator of journalism for University Libraries and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, which is housed at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, knows firsthand the pitfalls of losing digital content.

“Losing an image or some footage is truly painful when you've got something that you think is really good,” said McCain, who is a former journalist. “In one case I lost valuable and irreplaceable images. All I had left were low-resolution JPEGs, but they were not as good as the original files, not good enough for publication.”

Now, McCain leads a team that has published a report about preserving digital news content with the help of a $250,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The report addresses two key questions about digital news preservation:

  1. How are news organizations in the U.S. and Europe preserving digital news content?
  2. What are the best practices, problem areas and changes needed to avoid unintentional loss of content by news enterprises?

Along with their findings, the team developed a list of 14 recommendations for newsrooms to help manage the preservation of their digital news content. The recommendations are grouped into three sections based on the degree of difficulty and cost — immediate actions, medium-term actions and industry-wide actions.

The team designed the report to be relatable and accessible to newsroom leaders and others interested in the historical records that journalism captures. McCain provides insight below into how a news organization’s digital content can be lost, and how newsrooms can be proactive in preserving it.

How does your report help these newsrooms?

We came up with a set of 14 recommendations for managing this process, and some of the recommendations are things that could be done anytime, anywhere, with little or no budget. For example, having a preservation policy can be helpful. Specifically designating someone to oversee news preservation efforts, and performing a self-assessment are affordable ways to approach preservation.

Our team also recommends that if newsrooms don't already have a digital asset management system, or a “DAM,” they should get one. It’s worth the investment. When used properly, a DAM will be able to reliably tap into the work that they've already done and keep it accessible.

The internet seems endless in its capabilities to archive information. Why are newsrooms in danger of losing content?

There is a popular misconception that digital information lasts forever. The internet is not a reliable archive. For example, the web programming language known as HTML from the 1990s doesn’t load or look the same on modern web browsers. A big part of the problem is that access to content depends on a set of complicated technological systems that are constantly changing. Problems arise when stories are updated or moved, and hyperlinks are changed or broken. Often, a lack of metadata, such as a file name, means newsrooms can’t find the content they are looking for, or only find parts of the original story package. The bottom line is that digital preservation requires an active approach, and most news organizations must do more to keep their content accessible for the long term.

Why is it important for journalists to be concerned about digital information being lost?

We’re looking at a situation where the first draft of history — journalism — is at risk of disappearing over time. Digitally archiving news content presents a set of complicated factors that can affect how long the information lasts on a news organization’s online presence. The common types of content management systems used by newsrooms across the country are geared toward producing news. They’re great for people writing stories or for photographers transferring images from a card after the photos were taken. These systems can also help with the process of creating, editing and publishing content online. But after that content is published, we often aren’t able to tell which different pieces of a story belong together, when they were published, or what kind of rights were given at publication. To complicate matters, as operating systems change, so do the formats of different types of digital files, such as video. Then, as formats change, some things will look different when they are opened, and others are lost because prior formats are no longer supported by newer technology. That’s where our recommendations in this report can come into play.

Why wasn’t this type of digital preservation thought of before?

Digital preservation is a relatively new idea. Keeping news content for the long term is not usually top of mind for people who work in a fast-paced newsroom. So, by sharing this report, we're trying to raise the profile of the need for archiving digital news and providing ways to improve the current situation.

One of the great things we discovered is that newsrooms are consistently trying to archive their digital content. The majority of newsrooms are making a conscious effort to keep at least some of their content from disappearing. However, some of the challenges news organizations face could be due to a scarcity of resources or lack of awareness or knowledge about the tools needed in order for digital journalism to persist over the long haul.

To arrange an interview with Edward McCain, please contact Eric Stann with the MU News Bureau at 573-882-3346 or StannE@missouri.edu.

For more information and to view the report, please click here

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