I care a lot about archiving and ensuring the permanence of a historical record. I also care a lot about digital journalism. Increasingly, I am worried about these two things conflict. In an Atlantic piece called “The Internet’s Dark Ages” my fears were confirmed. According to the author, something like 30% of all links on the Internet stop working after one year.
The web, as it appears at any one moment, is a phantasmagoria. It’s not a place in any reliable sense of the word. It is not a repository. It is not a library. It is a constantly changing patchwork of perpetual nowness.
You can’t count on the web, okay? It’s unstable. You have to know this.
Digital information itself has all kinds of advantages. It can be read by machines, sorted and analyzed in massive quantities, and disseminated instantaneously. “Except when it goes, it really goes,” said Jason Scott, an archivist and historian for the Internet Archive. “It’s gone gone. A piece of paper can burn and you can still kind of get something from it. With a hard drive or a URL, when it’s gone, there is just zero recourse.”
With journalism continuing to be consumed online instead of in print, I fear about what the historical record of our time will look like even a decade from now. There’s no clear solution, but I hope libraries and archivists (and even tools like WayBack Machine) will focus more resources on archiving online-only journalism.
To use a micro-example, much of what we know about the history of Penn State is gleaned from the Daily Collegian archives. I don’t have much good to say about the Collegian in its present form, but it’s impossible to understate its importance in telling the history of the university. I’ve spent countless hours digging through the stash of old Collegians in the University Archives. But what happens when the Collegian no longer exists in print form (and it’s no longer a matter of if, but when)? There are still a number of dead links in the Collegian’s web presence from its most recent redesign, and you never know when something could happen and its recent links are gone forever.
The Atlantic article gave the clearest example of the failure to preserve journalism in the digital age. In 2006, the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News published a 33-part series called “The Crossing,” which explored a 1961 tragedy about a school bus that collided with a train in a small Colorado town and claimed the lives of 20 young children. Its genius was in its digital sum, which includes tons of videos, documents, and other multimedia elements that are impossible to recreate in a newspaper It won a Pulitzer Prize, and then one day, it was gone. The newspaper went under and with it went all of its online content.
Luckily, the writer had the entire story saved, and in 2013, he was able to recreate it using a unique URL (it’s well worth your time to read).
Had the author not backed up his work and saved it for all those years, this beautiful piece of journalism would have been lost forever. It’s worth thinking about the best way to preserve this kind of journalism as newspapers continue to go out of business or transition to online-only models.