New report shows it’s time to preserve your digital news

The State of Digital News Preservation
Download a PDF of the report

As news media organizations hustle to publish today’s news, it can be a struggle for them to think about how to keep their digital content from disappearing. Today, the news industry faces competition from other digital media platforms, political challenges to media credibility, and, most of all, financial viability. Digital news preservation may not be top of mind, but it should be.

RJI Digital Curator of Journalism Edward McCain, along with a MU-based research team, spent 18 months digging deeply into the issues that surround born-digital news preservation. The team’s findings have been compiled into a report that details current policies and practices at contemporary news organizations and provides concrete recommendations for addressing the issues at play.

The report, “Endangered But Not Too Late: The State of Digital News Preservation,” takes a close look at the key factors that affect the ability of news organizations to save their born-digital content for as long as they need or want it. Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with support from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and the University of Missouri Libraries, the report is the result of an estimated 188 hours of interviews at 29 news organizations, four news technology companies, two news aggregators and five memory institutions.

The research team, composed of journalists, digital media preservation experts and library scientists, spent countless hours reading transcripts, analyzing the data, writing and presenting the information through tables, charts and graphic design.

“It would be a supreme irony if, as news organizations rush to create the “first rough draft of history,” the priceless cultural record of the communities they serve falls into the cracks of this digital age and vanishes forever,” McCain said.

Since the rise of the first digital publishing systems in the 1990s, the news industry has seen that the rapid pace of technological change in news systems can result in the loss of valuable previously-published and sometimes irretrievable content. Lack of proper metadata can stymie the retrieval of original high-resolution photographs or video clips from evergreen stories that draw steady revenue streams. Without policies to guide proper newsroom practices, it can be time-consuming if not impossible to track copyright ownership for those same photos and videos.

Despite such challenges, most news organizations are finding ways to hold onto most of their digital content in one way or another, at least for now. A smaller set of media enterprises are finding ways to access and preserve their content for the long-term, and the research team paid special attention to the reasons for their success in this area.

“Our report includes 15 main findings presented as quantitative data in graphs and charts and also as observations and anecdotes,” McCain said. “Taken as a whole, our findings provide insight into major patterns we saw during our exploration of the current landscape of news organizations.”

Some takeaways from the research:

Newsrooms save some but not all digital content

In contrast to the team’s initial perspective and that of some existing studies on the topic of digital news preservation, they found that every news organization interviewed is saving at least a portion of the content they are now producing.  They may not be saving everything they produce, and they are likely not using a dedicated preservation platform, but they are keeping it in some form. As long as the content exists, there is a chance it will persist.

Figures 1 and 2

Web CMS is central, and often doubles as the archive

Without a doubt, the modern web Content Management System (CMS) has become the central technology for news publishing today. As such, the CMS has become a sort of Swiss army knife platform for newsrooms, serving an array of content channels – and serving as the archive, a role it was never meant to serve. This technological mismatch can set the stage for content loss, especially given the frequency with which news organizations migrate from one CMS to another.

Figure 20

Good preservation is strongly linked to mission and policy

Out of all the factors leading to saving content for the long term, the team found that the one that stands out as a predictor of successful practices is whether news preservation is part of an organization’s mission. An even more significant factor linked to successful preservation is a written or formally acknowledged mission statement that includes a commitment to saving news content for the long run.

Recommendations news organizations can take

The findings section includes details of key factors in the policies, workflows, and technologies that affect the ability of news organizations to preserve born-digital news content for the long-term. Following the findings section, the report presents 14 recommendations for steps that news organizations can take. Recommendations are grouped into three sections, based on degree of difficulty and/or cost.

  1. Immediate actions: These are steps an organization can take now, at little or no cost, to begin the process of ensuring news content is preserved for their news organization and community.
  2. Medium-term actions: The steps outlined here will likely take longer to accomplish and may involve investments in new or changed technologies, staff or funding through grants or other sources.
  3. Industry-wide actions: these are long-term steps that require more than one newsroom to pursue solutions that involve policy changes, institutional partnerships, actions by industry sub-groups or news associations, and some government actions.

According to McCain, based on the evidence the team collected, it seems clear that, “unless news organizations take intentional and specific actions to preserve their content, it is unlikely to survive as a permanent record of our times. Complacency can be costly. The time to act is now.”

The report is free, and available to download as a PDF. Get started by downloading and reading our new report today.

Special thanks to the following research team members:

  • Edward McCain, principal investigator for the project.
  • Neil Mara, Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow, Neil Mara News-Tech Consulting; former McClatchy News Systems Director and journalist.
  • Kara Van Malssen, Partner and Senior Consultant, AVP Consulting
  • Dorothy Carner, Head, Journalism Libraries/Adjunct Journalism Professor, University of Missouri Libraries/Missouri School of Journalism
  • Bernard Reilly, President Emeritus and Senior Advisor, Center for Research Libraries
  • Kerri Willette, Senior Consultant, AVP Consulting
  • Sandra Schiefer, Journalism Research and Digital Asset Librarian, University of Missouri Libraries
  • Joe Askins, Head, Instructional Services, Library Research and Information Services, University of Missouri Libraries
  • Sarah Buchanan, Assistant Professor, School of Information Science & Learning Technologies
     
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