Some things aren’t so persistent

U.S. News has decided to delete part of its digital archive. According to Jim Romenesko, the publication switched to a new content management system (the software that tracks content and helps to compile it for various forms of presentation). The new system “couldn’t effectively keep archived web content published prior to 2007 on our site.” So the publication decided to dump it from its own archive, noting the content resides in other databases like Lexis and EBSCO. A form of the content is also in the printed magazine, preserved in bound volumes.

From a management, “how do we make efficient use of our resources” standpoint I can see the rationale behind this decision. From a history/research perspective, it’s short-sighted. From a visual perspective, it’s a right pain.

Yes, the content is indexed in other online services, so people can search and get to content that was published in the magazine. Except those services don’t include photographs. Photography is an interesting animal when it comes to online databases. Text gets uploaded. It’s easy to catalog and generally doesn’t take a lot of space to store. It’s searchable, and the publication often controls rights to the text they publish.

Photographs need to have additional coding/keywords to make them searchable. They can take more room for high-resolution files, and rights become an issue if the photograph wasn’t generated by the company’s own photographer. (It can also be an issue if the photograph was created by the company’s own photographer.)

A publication might have rights to publish one time in one form but not to “re-use” the content, and it can’t grant another agency the rights to include the image for their own use. So while U.S. News might have have permission to publish that Getty/Corbis/AP/AFP image one time, they can’t transfer permission to Lexis/EBSCO to reuse it. Often the publication can’t even grant a researcher permission to include the photographs in a reproduction of a page as it was published. (Leaving the researcher to negotiate individually with the people who control the rights to the images.)

OK, so the pictures aren’t online. A person could search the database, note there’s a photograph included with the article and then go to the local library to look at the original bound issue, right? Well, maybe. Local libraries are stretched too. Are those bound volumes still there, or where they removed because the publication was accessible online and the library needed the space for something else? If it was web content, it won’t necessarily be in those bound volumes in the same manner.

In other words, if a photograph was published online or in print in U.S. News prior to 2007, the ability to find it, study it and write about it just got  more challenging.

I don’t know what the answer to this issue is. In part I want to think the publication has a responsibility to keep track of what it’s created, if not for the public then at least for its own operations. Publications have historically kept their own archives so they’re accessible internally for staff to consult in their work. The files may not be open to the general public, but they’re there. Does this mean someone working on a current article won’t be able to easily call up the photographs that have previously been published to get that perspective?

I also recognize there are economic and other considerations that publications, which are businesses after all, have to consider.

But is relying on others to keep track of (part of) your history the way to go? Or have we reached a turning point in media content and who is responsible for capturing it?

And will we see what it looked like?

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