Archivists, publishers and communities alike worry about what happens when a newspaper website disappears
When a newspaper shuts down, printed pages aren’t the only things that are lost.
The newspaper’s website, which more often than not contains the life’s work of a paper and its staff, can stretch back more than 100 years, is sometimes blown out of existence the same day the paper ceases publication—leaving anyone attempting to view the site with a 404-error message that reads: “This page no longer exists.”
Once the proverbial website switch is flipped, the paper ceases to exist in two distinct forms—print and digital. With the flip of the switch, an archival void is created when the newspapers stories and photographs disappear for good from the internet.
This issue of maintaining a paper’s digital assets after it is shuttered is becoming a news issue that is causing concern for communities, publishers and archivists alike.
“When you are asking about archiving websites, who’s doing that?” said Errol Somay, lead archivist at the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Newspaper Project. “You think about the things you’ve been doing traditionally with papers, like acquiring books, cataloging it and putting it on a shelf. But when something new (such as preserving newspaper’s website) happens, sometimes everyone just stands around and says, ‘wait a minute, what do we do about this?’”
Virginia has lost six newspapers within the last year. And what each these papers have chosen to do, or not to do, with their websites and online archives has varied.
For instance, when the Hopewell News shut down in January, the owners flipped the switch on the website the same day the newspaper closed. Everything other than the print archives of the paper and the Twitter account were shut down.
All links back to news stories published by the paper became inactive, the Facebook page was deleted and the website gone.
“It’s an interesting idea that the print record holds more weight than the digital record just because it’s print and it still exists,” said Erin White, head of digital engagement for Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries. “When, in fact, it is just as important as the physical record—if not more so in regard to accessibility.”
These newspapers and their websites open the door and document communities no one else is, White said. The websites have stories that are “deeply held” by community members and sometimes only available through the paper’s online archive, White said.
“It’s an interesting idea that the print record holds more weight than the digital record just because it’s print and it still exists. When, in fact, it is just as important as the physical record—if not more so in regard to accessibility.”
“For this type of information to be lost is a tragedy,” White said
Other Virginia newspapers that have closed this year have taken a less severe approach in how they have chosen to deal with their websites.
Lakeway Publishers, owned the Herald-Progress and the Caroline Progress and shut down both in March, have opted to keep both paper’s unique URLs open after their closure for the sake of not losing an entire digital archive from each, said Steve Weddle, Vice President of Lakeway Publishers and President of the Virginia Press Association Board.
“It’s a fairly simple process to retain the domain and we’ve already got the archives electronically,” Weddle said. “It’s not a terribly arduous process for us to have that still accessible. It’s just a matter of keeping the lights turned on.”
Weddle echoed White’s statement about newspapers having stories that are “deeply held” with their readerships. He said there are both short term and long-term consequences that communities realize when a paper shuts down and its archives become—in some cases—unavailable. There is the question of what happened in the town many years ago but also the question of what happened in the town within the last decade and those questions can often only be found through newspapers, he said.
Weddle illustrated this by stating that people looking for information related to themselves, or their families, can often times only find that information through the newspaper’s archives, or website. The information might be from the last five years, but it might also be from some time 50 years back, Weddle said.
“But if that’s gone, what are you going to do?” Weddle said. “We’ve been entrusted as a paper of record and it’s incumbent on us to keep that information accessible.”
Weddle also said he has been frustrated by looking for content that has been erased online.
“I’ve spent afternoons looking at 404 pages,” he said.
The Clinch Valley Times, which had less of an emphasis on digital, chose to archive their print PDFs. The Clinch Valley News archived its paper dating back from 2008 through 2017 by using a software system designed exclusively for newspapers. The print archives prior to 2008 are not available online.
The Tazewell County Free Press, which closed in December, had no digital archive so the only records (both digital and print) available are the ones created and made available by Somay’s Virginia Newspaper Project.
‘A gap in the record’
How newspapers and their owners handle a website after a closure will continue to be a question that requires addressing, White said.
The long-term plan for both the Caroline Progress and the Herald-Progress’ websites, Weddle said, is to shift their digital content over to an archive page that people will be able to access using a pass.
White said this is one of the best short-term solutions she has heard of as far as keeping information accessible after a shutdown. By keeping the URLs of closed papers active, or restoring them to another active URL, it ensures that information is still available and that links to the content will continue to function, she said.
There are also web-based tools such as the “Wayback Machine” that can provide users with some data from websites that have disappeared, she said.
The problem is what tools like this offer are by no means a complete overview of something that has been wiped from the web, she said. Users would need to have the exact URL they were looking for in order to access a webpage using the tool and on top of that, the results are not keyword searchable.
A solution to the problem of losing news websites forever will come at some point soon, White said, but between now and then is what she worries about. For the time being, she said, this is a unique issue that the industry will have to continue to grapple with until something more permanent is created.
“I think there might just be a gap in the record,” White said. “Within five years there will be significant progress in web archiving that reassures us all that things that disappear from the web may not in fact be gone forever.”