Protecting the Record: Tips from journalists, librarians on digital preservation in evolving tech era

By Reagan Allen and Caitlyn Yaede

Edward McCain, digital curator of journalism at Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and the University of Missouri Libraries, wants to emphasize the risk of work that is born digital.

Especially for local news, which is said to be the “first draft of history.”

“It’s essential to have a clear, accurate, and trustworthy record of events for a functioning democracy,” McCain said.

“Digitizing & Archiving Jim Martin’s WWII Photographs (11-20-10)” by Brevort is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Before the digital age, most newsrooms kept physical copies of archives, as did local libraries. Now, in the digital media world, with changing story formats, technology tools, the rise of AI and frequent media ownership changes, digital preservation of local news stories is a challenge. As an example, many newsrooms used Storify to publish social media roundups in the 2010s, a platform that went out of business and left blank story shells on news websites. Similarly, many newsrooms invested in interactive stories that used Adobe Flash early in the digital media era.

“When media changes, the tools and the challenges of preserving media changes significantly,”  said Nicholas Graham, university archivist for UNC-Chapel Hill.

An example of what’s at stake: In 2002, a local server in the University of Missouri Libraries crashed, wiping out 15 years of exclusively digital content, much of which was local news, McCain said. The information was not able to be recovered and created gaps in the archives at the library. After the incident, the library had to mitigate risks in the future. Staff started looking for solutions to organize and store information safely.

McCain warns news organizations to protect essential archives. Here are some ways to get started:

Designate a digital archivist: In addition to storing physical copies of stories, McCain suggests each newsroom designate one person be designated digital archivist. He recommends a digital asset management system to store, organize, share and manage digital files using cloud-based software. News organizations can apply to federal grant programs to help fund this work.

Implement metadata: Utilize metadata to facilitate better organization, searchability, and management of digital assets. This is most frequently utilized in photo collections but can be effective for all assets. Even if your information is included in a digital asset management system, metadata will help keep it organized.

Work with a university archivist: Over the course of his career, Graham said there have been many changes in the digital world and how media is stored. Graham helps digitize independent outlet The Daily Tar Heel as a source of news about the university. Other universities across the country help digitize local news, including the University of Virginia and The University of Florida.

As an archivist, Graham said he never treats digital media platforms as permanent and takes steps to save content from organizations the library wants to preserve. Graham says he works with social media platforms when preserving news — however,  he is more selective when picking what to preserve. For example, the University has archived certain University accounts and hashtags from Twitter documenting events on campus. The challenge of preserving media has gotten increasingly difficult due to the proliferation of platforms, the ways that information is shared online and the changing nature of the technology, Graham said.

Set clear newsroom guidelines about what content to preserve publicly and internally: While you’re working to preserve your work, consider what’s worth preserving publicly and how it might impact trust in your organization.

Deborah Dwyer, a former journalist, communications professor and UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism PhD graduate, wrote her dissertation on “unpublishing” the news. She works to understand the set of challenges that stem from removing, obscuring or otherwise altering accurate information published at some point in the past. This can include unpublishing a story about a crime where the suspect was acquitted. Unpublishing without clear policies can impact what content makes it into archival data. “Eighty percent of news outlets surveyed had established unpublishing policies, but almost half of those were not in writing and only two percent were shared beyond the (internal) newsroom,” Dwyer said.

Newsrooms should develop and enforce clear, written unpublishing policies for content management online and ensure consistency and proactive measures in content handling, Dwyer said.