Wednesday, May 5, 2021
Uncategorized Can we save newspaper archives -- and history?

Can we save newspaper archives — and history?

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The last endorsements issue of the Bay Guardian -- and the last cover that's live on the website
The last endorsements issue of the Bay Guardian — and the last cover that’s live on the website

By Tim Redmond

OCTOBER 16, 2014 – The owners of the Bay Guardian, who shut the paper down Monday, have at least gotten one message: It’s not okay to take offline the website and digital archive of the paper.’

After going down for two days, sfbg.com was live late this afternoon. So the years and years of back stories can once again be found, the former staff have a chance to link to their work if they want to apply for jobs, and the links many other publications have used to connect to Guardian stories will once again be live.

I wonder how long that will last.

When the Boston Phoenix shut down in 2013, its website stayed live; it’s kind of a moment frozen in time, the story about the paper closing on the front page. Can’t cost much to keep the site up, maybe a few hundred bucks a year. The value is incalculable.

I will say from the outset: I know nothing about the finances of the SF Media Co, which owned the Guardian and still publishes the Examiner and SF Weekly. But it’s no secret that the SF Chronicle is losing money and looking for a buyer, and maybe the Examiner is in the same situation. I can’t imagine that the paper, which is very thin and has only a few major advertisers, is doing well.

And SF Weekly? Last I heard, which was a while ago, that paper was above water. But it’s a weekly, and it’s not exactly fat either; is it making enough to keep the whole SF Media Co viable? Not likely.

So there may be a point in the not-too-distant future where the whole enterprise folds – and then what happens to all of that history?

The Examiner donated some of its archives years ago to Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. But (as we have just noticed) things go bad when paper close down quickly. And newspapers, much as they may be (sadly) yesterday’s news, are still yesterday’s news: They were, and are, the first draft of history, and their pages contain priceless information.

Nicholson Baker spent all of his retirement money trying to save old newspaper archives, and has created a foundation to preserve them. It’s insane that one writer has to do that. The National Archives ought to offer to take over, index, and preserve the amazing US history that is in the pages of daily newspapers that may not survive the next decade.

But when I talked to Pat Brown, the general manager of the SF Media Co, Monday, he told me that the archives have “value.” I hope that doesn’t mean the company wants to, in effect, hold hostage the history of progressive San Francisco until somebody coughs up a bunch of money.

When I started in this biz, the good people (and there were many) who ran newspapers understood that they were operating under a sacred trust. The First Amendment gave us vast power – but with it came the responsibility to understand that this was a business, but not just a business. It was a critical part of American history and democracy.

As the daily newspaper business declines, we have to remember that. What the papers produced, in print and online, is not just private property; it’s something that everyone in this country has a stake in.

Some libraries have copies of local newspapers. The SF Public Library has old Guardians on microfilm. That treasure trove ought to be digitized; so should all the other microfilm news archives (hey – here’s a great project for some tech mogul to fund!)

As for the Guardian:

I was sitting around with my son the other night, and now that he’s 15, I figured it was okay to share with him the story I wrote about him when he was three years old. We pulled it up on his phone, and (despite the inappropro drug reference) we had a great moment reading it. It mattered to both of us.

This stuff can’t go away. It can’t be the victim of the strange economics of newspaper capitalism in 2014.

Shutting a newspaper isn’t like closing a shoe store. There’s too much history – and while it may belong legally to the owners, it really belongs to the public. When I was at the Guardian, the archives were open to anyone who wanted to come by the office and look through them. Journalists, historians, researchers – lots of folks wanted to find some article from the 1970s, and I made it a point to help them.

With everything in the business so shaky now, the SF Media Co. ought to give that history to someone who can preserve it. The website can easily be hosted at a university (USF or Berkeley would I’m sure be willing to do it). The print archives, too.

I emailed Brown today to ask if he was willing to donate the archives to someone who would preserve them, and he didn’t respond. Hope that’s not a bad sign.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

33 COMMENTS

  1. What Craig said.
    Now to recovering a complete, accessible print archive. The online one isn’t even close.

  2. Great question. I can’t find the words for my feelings about this. I could see the writing on the wall, as it left the building.

  3. If you own an archive you have the legal right to destroy it. But it would make little sense to destroy something that has sale value.

    To the broader question, it is unlikely that anyone would want to take on the costs of printed weekly any more. The effort has been fragmented into dozens of blogs which, because they are often run at little or no cost, represent a better way forward.

    It’s not even clear that the much more viable SFWeekly will survive in an on-line world.

  4. Becky O’Malley, editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet, has a good piece in Counterpunch today on the early history and demise of the SFBG.
    http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/10/20/the-demise-of-the-san-francisco-bay-guardian/

    Like others have said, a reincarnation of the SFBG is extremely important for the SF progressive community, whether a new progressive publishing group is able to buy the name from the current owners or not. I’m guessing the price the current owners want for the SFBG name and archives is far higher than they’re worth, which means the effort to find a place to host the archives and the effort to copy them for future use by the public are also priorities. The state legislature may need to get involved to ensure the current owners do not destroy the digital archives since the archives are an invaluable public resource for future generations.

    The Bay Area has a wealth of technical and creative talent that could contribute to building a solid web presence and an occasional (monthly/biweekly?) hard copy publication, with special publications such as election editions. The broader the participation in the management and operations of the new entity, and the wider the depth and diversity of the writers for the publication, could help ensure a long-lasting asset to the community. And as much as I enjoy reading their articles and understanding their points of view, a publication owned and edited by BB, TR, SJ or Ms./Mr. X would have, IMHO, far less value than a publication with a more inclusive involvement by the progressive community.

  5. Sam, not too difficult for the City to award a grant for newswriting the way it awards grants for the arts and other social services. We’d want to watch that the attached strings make sense. Otherwise it should be able to fund useful metro reporting.

  6. all the old BG issues are available at most good libraries, you have to copy it from microfiche onto a thumb drive but it is not lost.

    Identity 10/2012-
    Call No. 917.946 Sa5205
    Location MAIN – 5th Floor – Mags & News
    Holdings Microfilm: Vol. 3, no. 1 (Aug. 30, 1968) – v. 6, no. 14 (Oct. 4, 1972); Broken – check with department for exact holdings
    Microfilm: Vol. 7, no. 1 (Oct. 18, 1972) – v. 17, no. 50 (Oct. 19, 1983)
    Microfiche: Vol. 15, no. 1 (Nov. 19, 1980) –
    Paper issues are retained until microform copies are received
    Current issue on display
    Latest Received: October 15-21, 2014 v.49 no.3
    Identity MICROFICHE
    Call No. 917.946 Sa5205
    Location MAIN – 5th Floor – Mags & News
    Latest Received: October 5, 2011 – September 26, 2012 v.46 no.1-52
    Edition Home ed.
    Description v. : ill. ; 45 cm
    Frequency Weekly, Sept. 27, 1975-
    Irregular, 1968-Dec. 22, 1971
    Biweekly, Mar. 28-Sept. 20, 1972
    Biweekly (except one issue in Aug. and one in Dec.), Oct. 1972-Sept. 13, 1975
    Publication Date Vol. 3, no. 1 (Aug. 30, 1968)-

  7. Good luck with “overthrowing capitalism”. As if communist nations have been so successful. But it’s good to have a goal that is so achieveable.

    Until then, it is important that the media remains independant from the state. Even the non-profit BBC is not funded by the government at all, but rather by a separate licensing scheme.

    The freedom of the press from government interference is a cherished value and right.

  8. Sam – When we have a society governed by us toilers, then “the government” will be us. Which means “government-owned” will mean owned by us! So yes, I for one do want the press owned by us. I guess you want the press run by profit-driven media mogul billionaires, like what we have now. We need media run by and for the people. Not gonna happen under capitalism. The SFBG and other progressive media have and had relatively short runs, get co opted and watered down, then fizzle out when the owners find more profits elsewhere. Volunteerism isn’t enough to keep peoples’ projects alive; they require socialist and communist government support. Until we overthrow capitalism, we’ll see these same cycles of boom and bust throughout all sectors of society. Check out the depth of information in Granma and Pravda, they put our so called ‘news’ to shame. I’ll take a communist news outlet over capitalist controlled propaganda media any day!

  9. Sorry to hear about the closure of the Bay Guardian. Seems like a good time for the City and County of San Francisco to launch a nonprofit trust to publish news in the public interest. The City is wealthy enough to do this, and do it before the rest of the city’s for profit news companies go belly up.

    Some libertarian ideologues may scream, “Socialism!” Just say it’s the “Sociable” thing to do to preserve the Fourth Estate. You can’t have a democracy without an informed public. Good Luck to you and the future of public media in San Francisco!

  10. Many of those comments refuted the positions that SFBG was advocating. Suppressing them is in the interests of those who wish to sanitize the heritage of the paper.

    Such self-serving censorship would be worth of Soviet-era historical revisionism. The archives will now imply that there was no debunking of the positions that SFBG took when, in reality, many of them were destroyed through analysis and argument.

  11. Thanks, JMC, for bringing up the staff-deleted comments that have not been restored to the Guardian’s site.

    I’ve called on whomever controls that site to save the crucial progressive history of the comments and responses from the editorial staff, at my campaign site: http://tinyurl.com/Petrelis-4-Supe.

    Let’s hope Redmond and his former colleague understand the need to preserve as much history as possible, not just what the staffers wrote.

    It was one thing to end comments like the staff did in August, it’s a very different ball of wax tho to scrub all the comments made over the years at the Guardian site.

  12. I looked at Jay’s twitter account and I think he’s a spambot? Or at least a sentient Buzzfeed article.

    They should rename “Code for America” to “Project Manage for America”.

    Even the well-intentioned skilled people involved in CfA end up being stooges for the “Civic Big Data” crowd. Evgeny Morozov has documented the huge kickbacks to Cisco/HP and the lack of any critical questions being asked-“SHOULD we be hackathonning government?”

    “Let’s write bloated software in Rails and get the hardware donated and get grant money to pay Oracle/SAP for 24/7 server access!”

    Also what’s up with that jingoist name? Code for America? LET’S DO IT! FOR AMERICA, GANG!

    Thanks for talking about maybe getting a crew together at the next meetup to maybe talk about how we could maybe start to organize to maybe save the day- but in the meantime, the mirroring of sfbg.com is already done and no grant money had to be raised in the process.

  13. Archive Team has been mirroring the entire sfbg.com website for 2 days now- the resulting pages are being hosted on archive.org- which can be downloaded and hosted anywhere.

    According to the archivebot.com dashboard, they have scraped 37GB in 764k files, another 300k files in the queue- it looks like they’ve already spidering everything back to 2006 that was in Drupal, everything back to 2002 that was in Movable Type, and all the static HTML before that.

    The PDFs from issuu.com have been hosted already on archive.org back to 2011.
    https://archive.org/search.php?query=subject%3A%22San+Francisco+Bay+Guardian%3B%22

    This is what Archive Team does, and they’re quite good at at.
    http://archiveteam.org/index.php?title=SF_Bay_Guardian
    http://archiveteam.org

    Thanks for your efforts Marcos, redundancy is always great. But pitching an archive project at a Code For America meetup for something that’s already been underway for 2 days, that Code For America is starting from zero in, seems (like most CfA projects) well-intentioned but too much overehead- the task of handling 20 volunteers alone seems like so much overhead that would derail such a project (a project that’s moot anyway). Speed is of the essence- nobody knows how long the sfbg.com website will be up, but it will likely be gone before “the next meetup”.

    Good luck!

  14. Brugmann only collected a small fraction of that judgement against SF Weekly. I don’t recall all the details now but the US company that owned SFWeekly was the subsidiary of a Canadian company. The US company didn’t have any assets that could be seized. The Canadian parent did but of course that was beyond the jurisdiction.

    I think SFBG seized a couple of delivery trucks but that was a small value. Eventually a small cash payment settled the matter. Maybe someone else can provide the actual number but I believe it was trivial, and not worth the effort. No point in winning big if you can never collect.

    That in turn is probably why BBB had to sell out the building and business shortly afterwards.

  15. So where is Bruce Brugmann in all this? The Guardian won a $15.9 million judgment against the Weekly for predatory pricing. And all the money he got from selling the Guardian? Why isn’t Bruce stepping up to protect his legacy? Could it be that his interest in activist journalism only extended to his pocketbook? His motto shouldn’t be “Read my paper, dammit!” More like “line my pockets, dammit!”

  16. ≎ There was a lot of good material available in the 1990s, which vanished in some sight redesign or another. That stuff’s clearly as valuable as what usurped it then.

  17. Of course the archives must and shall be preserved. But what about keeping the Guardian going at least in online form? I can’t imagine life in SF without it. I don’t know the economics but with the breadth and talent in our progressive community their should be a way to make it happen.

  18. Don’t like all the press, last lame endorsments getting,Yes on H,G,E.No on I.mainstream press turning mission dustup into call for more soccer fields.Parks for public, not for profit

  19. Jay, was that you at Code for America last night suggesting a project to preserve the SFBG archives? If you propose it at next weeks Meetup, I’m in, though I’m not a coder.

    For those on 48 Hills who don’t know, Code for America is an SF nonprofit startup that puts together political and tech geeks on civic minded projects. Check out their YouTube videos, and TED talks by the founder. Mayor Lee’s tech person is in attendance every week at the Meetups on 9th Street I’m told.

    A coding project to preserve SFBG might be fairly simple tech wise… but would likely require intensive librarianship and cataloging to make it truly accessible. There were about 20 new coding signups at the Code for America meetup last night when someone (presumably Jay) pitched the SFBG project. So a cadre of workers can probably be assembled.

    The copyright issues might require negotiation with the owners, or, assertion of the public’s right to access. I suggest someone buy the URL http://www.sfbgforever.com or http://www.sfbglives.com as a landing. Tim? Jay?

  20. Hi everyone,

    I volunteer at Code for America’s San Francisco brigade, and we were all taken aback at the SFBG’s closure. We’re happy to help out however we can – we can certainly explore ways of preserving the content.

    Reach out to me on Twitter (@RamblingRooney) to discuss more.

  21. You could contact Susan Goldstein at SFPL, who is City Archivist. Even if they can’t take/buy SFBG’s archives, she should be able to advise on who could.

    Digitising isn’t archiving. It’s a secondary form of preservation and it provides access, but it won’t save the original newspapers or the other archival records long-term.

  22. I recall some years ago the BG put out a call to readers in order to find a few missing numbers in the archives. It’s ironic that those good-will contributions end up in arguably hostile hands.

    The Library of Congress has digitized many old local newspapers, which are online: the entire run of the wonderful San Francisco Alta California, for example. The free weeklies of our era have not yet gotten enough attention from archivists, unfortunately.

  23. Would be great if they would also also repost the old comments. Many of the comments were as valuable as the stories, but those were taken down about 2 months before the rest.

  24. Other traditional papers have tried to capitalize on their archives and they have ended up on google. I suspect that as long as the documents are considered “valuable” they will be kept in a safe place. Eventually the “value” concept will change. After all, this is the new “sharing economy”. There is probably a hoarding history buff out there somewhere who has the entire collection. Maybe they will come forward.

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