News headlines and stories that need to be preserved via Wikimedia Commons

This week the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism has produced a thoughtful and wide-ranging report on current practices in preserving local news publishing in the digital age.

A Public Record at Risk: The Dire State of News Archiving in the Digital Age

As the subtitle suggests there is little reliable archiving and preservation in place. Very little thought or investment is being given to the matter and there is often a naive belief that the fact that digital systems are being used and reliably ‘backed up’ in the cloud, or by Google, means that the problem can be ignored — at least for the moment. “A persistent confusion that backing up work on third-party, cloud servers is the same as archiving means that very little is currently being done to preserve news.”

Added to which most local news organisations are under tremendous pressure and have little incentive to tackle a problem that is not widely understood. What then is the problem: the authors point out that the public record matters for journalism and news organisations

The Tow report does not spend much effort explaining why the preservation of local news matters: perhaps because the answer is obvious — preservation matters because it is a requirement of an effective democratic politics. Local, independent, and alternative news sources are especially at risk of not being preserved, “threatening to leave critical exclusions in a record that will favour dominant versions of public history”. We can accept the truth of this requirement that a preserved public record matters for the health of our democracy, but I think there may be a more general requirement that should also be factored in when thinking about strategies for digital preservation. The ‘civic hygiene’ reason for preserving stuff will not always appear to be a compelling consideration.

Experience at Exact Editions with the preservation of digital archives for magazines suggests a broader reason for preserving stuff that is published digitally. It makes the digital publication better! The primary reason why publishers of digital assets should make sure that their publication incorporates a digital preservation strategy is that digital publications can (a) do this very easily (b) building a digital resource that manages its own preservation strategy is to build a digital publication that is more likely to last. Because it expects to last.

One of the difficulties in thinking about digital archives is that our normal habit for framing ‘archives’ is that they are about the past. But digital media are different, a digital archive is at least as much about the future as it is about the past.

Magazines that have their archives on the Exact Editions platform have ‘growing’ archives. The most recent issue is the leading issue and the way in which the issues are stacked in virtual heaps, by year, and by decade, shows that the archive is looking forward as much as it looks back. Any subscriber has access to all the issues and if a new issue is published it pops straight up in the subscription. So digital preservation is not simply a strategy for the future it is a service for current subscriptions. The great advantage of digital media is that with an intelligent strategy, preservation is not a cost or a distraction, it is rather a service for existing readers and subscribers which at the same time orients the digital publication towards its own future.

Contemporary theorists of language and human evolution postulate the importance of gesture and pointing as a step in the direction of language and of the accompanying human ability to use memory for ‘mental time travel’. Digital publications achieve a similar remarkable feat, they can incorporate their past (represented by back issues) in the present of the currently published issue. Once we are used to digital publications that come with their own past on-board, we quickly get used to the facility of searching, or browsing. or linking to the past, but we may not notice the way that this opportunity is framing and conditioning the way that we will use the publication in the future. The digital magazine which incorporates its own preservation strategy is implicitly projecting its readers into the future. The availability, link-ability, and browse-ability of a digital archive encourages mental time travel.

Can we be sure that preserving today’s current and past issues for next month or for the next year will be a good enough preservation strategy for 10 or 20 years distant? It would be hard and perhaps foolish to guarantee or even expect that today’s technology will be good enough for the medium to longer term, but the advantage of a publication that commits itself to being available to its readers for the near future, is that it is implicitly committing itself to being available through whatever twists and software turns the future brings. The print magazines of our grandparent’s time have learned to adapt to colour printing and then to digital formats, if magazine formats and platforms start to incorporate Augmented Reality or Automated Translation functions, no doubt our thinner digital formats will adapt to the new environment. Once a publication has adopted its own sustaining preservation strategy it is rather clear how and why this asset will be worth incorporating in future versions.