Saving Local News on the Web

April 30th, 2018

The following is a guest post by Diana Bowers-Smith, Archivist, Brooklyn Collection, at the Brooklyn Public Library.

For this year’s Endangered Data Week, the Brooklyn Public Library hosted a panel discussion at its Central Library’s Info Commons Lab on the topic of “Saving Local News on the Web.” The impetus for this event was the Brooklyn Collection’s participation in the Community Webs program and our focus on saving local news websites as part of our web archiving efforts.

The panel comprised myself, John del Signore, former Editor-in-Chief of Gothamist, and Cate Corcoran, Editor-in-Chief of Brownstoner. The topic of discussion felt especially urgent just a few short months after the shutdown of Gothamist and its sister site DNAinfo, which included a brief period during which all content was removed from both sites. It also has more long-term relevance, however, as Brownstoner, for example, is one of the few survivors of what was once a thriving local blogosphere in Brooklyn.

Screenshot of Gothamist/DNAInfo in the Wayback Machine on November 2, 2017

Gothamist and DNAInfo as they appeared on November 2, 2017

I began the event with a presentation providing a broad overview of web archiving and the importance of web preservation, especially with regards to local news sources. I gave some background information about the Internet Archive, the Community Webs project, and the Brooklyn Collection, explaining that our collection’s foundation is steeped in the library’s 1957 acquisition of the records of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, which ran for over 100 years. We still access the content from those records every single day, as do countless patrons across the country and the world. But how will we access today’s news content 100 years from now (or more)?

Illustrative ad from the March 2, 1947 issue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

From The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 2, 1947

To highlight the state of preserving digital news content, I shared the example of Kevin Vaughan’s 34-part, Pulitzer Prize finalist series for The Rocky Mountain News, “The Crossing.” The Atlantic told the story in a 2015 article titled “Raiders of the Lost Web” with the tagline, “If a Pulitzer-finalist 34-part series of investigative journalism can vanish from the web, anything can.” I noted that this is especially regrettable because, as Anna Heyward of The New Yorker noted last year in the wake of the Gothamist and DNAinfo shutdown, “One of the roles of local journalism…is to hold power accountable.” Who decides what does and doesn’t get covered? When a news outlet is owned or purchased by an individual or organization with a political agenda, how is the public’s access to information affected?

Access to local news is also affected by the way the Internet itself is regulated. For example, after the FCC vote to repeal net neutrality, some people suggested that we start building offline community news resources as an alternative to and, possibly, replacement for vulnerable digital resources. This kind of thinking begs the question, who decides what we do and don’t see on the Internet? How can we ensure that our communities stay well-informed, and that power is held accountable? One of the goals of Endangered Data Week is to “explore the power dynamics of data creation, sharing, and retention,” and we definitely addressed those questions in our discussion.

I asked the panelists to share their experiences with these issues, and our discussion grew from there. John Del Signore shared his personal experience of both working at Gothamist and experiencing its shutdown. Cate Corcoran described how many of the most vibrant local blogs on Brooklyn topics have been lost to us because of the death of the creator, or because the creator stopped paying the hosting fees. I was then asked a question that every archivist should be prepared to answer: should everything be preserved? I gave a long but I hope helpful answer describing archival practices of appraisal and weeding, and how we are trained to make those types of decisions. I also stressed the need for those making such decisions to actively work to overcome their own biases and assumptions.

Some tough questions emerged during our discussion and the Q&A with the audience, including:

  • Is there a place in our current system for free local digital spaces?
  • Is the local news ecosystem too reliant on the Internet?
  • How do we deal with advertising content when archiving the web?
  • How can local news outlets survive in the current climate?

I was gratified to find that the audience comprised both librarians/information workers and local journalists, and I think both sides learned from and about each other.

This event successfully raised awareness for the plight of local news, both on the web and in general, as well as for the Brooklyn Collection’s work to build a Brooklyn web archive through the Community Webs program.