Preserving work in a time of vanishing archives

“Nothing disappears on the Internet,” people like to say, but journalists know that’s not necessarily true. Articles frequently disappear when online publications shutter or restructure. The internet is more like an Etch-a-Sketch than a stone engraving—over time, some marks endure, but the rest are swept from the canvas. 

In August, the online archives of Into, a Grindr publication that folded earlier this year, briefly disappeared from the internet. Those archives have since been restored, but Kate Sosin, an investigative journalist who reports for LOGOTv’s NewNowNext, expressed concern for the temporary loss of their former colleagues’ work.

Sometimes, writers’ work isn’t lost but cannibalized or rendered unrecognizable. After Amelia McDonnell-Parry, an independent journalist based in Baltimore, left her position as editor-in-chief at a feminist analysis and entertainment site called The Frisky, it was bought by a Serbian music producer. It became a “Stepford” version of itself, McDonnell-Parry says, recycling outdated content under fake bylines. 

Creative Loafing, a monthly paper in Atlanta, lost most of its 10-year archive in 2018, after the publication launched a new website. What work remains is formatted strangely or filled with broken links. 

CJR surveyed journalists affected by these incidents and others about the work they’ve lost, the work they’ve chosen to hold on to, and their personal perspectives on archiving. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

If this website goes down, then all my archive links are also gone. I don’t think that will actually happen, but it kinda seems like putting a Band-Aid on the problem.

 

Kate Sosin, investigative reporter, NewNowNext

I have a notebook of newspaper clippings that I clipped out of my first articles that were published, but my first pieces were on radio, so they’re really hard to find, and my first newspaper articles are for a paper that no longer exists. If you want them, you have to dig through some old boxes of mine. After that, I worked for Chicago’s LGBTQ newspaper, The Windy City Times, and those are up, but they’re so old that I wouldn’t really share those as clips that I’ve done. And after that, I worked for a newspaper in Boston that was print only. I feel like I’ve become really comfortable with this idea that everything I produce is lost to the wind. 

But what I did mourn  when the Into site went down that day was other people’s stuff. Trish Bendix had written this really important thing about Leslie Feinberg, and Clarkisha [Kent] wrote all of these columns that I thought were so important. And I felt like Nico [Lang] did this really crucial political reporting that no one else had done, and documented these candidates before anyone really cared about them, and I felt like that would be lost to us. 

There’s so much history there. I was really sad, because I felt like Into was really really important. It became the largest LGBTQ publication in a year. And it was so successful, so widely read, but what was meaningful about that was that most of the writers were marginalized within the LGBTQ community. It was mostly trans-identified people, people of color, people covering their own communities within the LGBTQ community. For it to be erased offline felt like a loss too, because it was like no one will be able to look at this and see that it’s possible to do. 

 

RELATED: The dire state of news archiving in the digital age

 

Jessica Wakeman, women’s issues journalist with work in Bustle, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times

I wrote and edited for The Frisky for six years, which is a sizeable chunk of my career and also a very important period of my life. During that time I developed a lot as a thinker and as a feminist and as a human being. It’s disappointing and even a little painful when the record of that time disappears without my choice. Going to search for an old article that I wrote is a jarring way to find out that something is not online. 

All of us had our bylines replaced with somebody else’s name. It’s just dummy bylines. At the very bottom of the story, it would say, “Original by Jessica Wakeman.” All of a sudden, things that I wrote were now being attributed to another person. As time has gone on, I haven’t been able to find pieces that I wrote. 

I feel really cynical about digital-media ownership and the priorities of people who own websites and blogs. So, as disappointed as I am, I’m also not surprised by it. I think the current status quo for many owners is that the work isn’t valuable. Content that currently gains traffic is what they care about. 

I started writing for a local newspaper when I was 15. My first job out of college was at a newspaper. I spent many years physically cutting out all of my articles and putting them in my binder. I can remember in 2004 and 2005 and 2006, applying to jobs and having a physical binder as my calling card. This is a new problem, but the answer might be that we as writers have to save every single thing we write as a PDF or that we have to print it out and put it in a binder and go the analog route, which seems crazy.

All of that being said, there’s a certain amount of relief that maybe some of the pieces I wrote are no longer accessible, because I wrote them between the ages of 24 and 29, and I don’t hold all the same viewpoints or use the same words. Which is the thinnest silver lining on this whole thing. 

 

Amelia McDonnell-Parry, independent journalist whose work has appeared in Undisclosed

There were a couple of people who wrote for [The Frisky] that were like, “Is there a way for us to buy it?” And I was like, “Listen, more power to you, but I don’t got it in me anymore.” In a way, it’s kind of freeing to just have it go. I was running the site, I got hired when I was 28, and I left the site when I was 36 or 37, and I’m about to turn 40. You change a lot. 

The things that I got that were valuable to me, I still have. But there was something oddly freeing about it, I have to say. And I also just knew I didn’t have any power over it. 

I still get Google alerts for my name. Every few days, I’ll get a Google alert, and it’ll be for The Frisky, but it’ll be something I wrote seven years ago. A personal essay, or some strident opinion piece on something that I’m like, “I don’t think I even have an opinion on that anymore.” Or, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that really sucked.” And it’s presented by this person who’s not me — it has a fake byline — but then my name is still at the bottom. 

I’ve been doing mostly audio stuff lately. That’s stuff’s preserved. And for quite a bit of time I was writing for Rolling Stone’s website. I don’t expect Rolling Stone to go anywhere anytime soon. But seeing what happened [at The Frisky] did sort of remind me it’s a good idea to save actual, physical copies of your work in some sort of way. PDFs. You can’t rely on Archive.org to have everything and you never know when shit might disappear. And you don’t know when it might reappear again in some bizarro environment with someone else’s name on it.

 

Max Blau, health, politics, and inequality reporter with work in Politico, The New York Times, and The Washington Post

In 2015, the year after Michael Brown was killed and all the protests around officer-involved shootings happened nationwide, I created a database [for Creative Loafing Atlanta]. No one knew the exact number of how many people had been killed by police in the five-county metro Atlanta area. Doing this large, 7,000-word story based on 55 open records requests, I created a database of those individuals. That was something that just lived on the CL website for a long time. Anyone who wanted to know about that issue, that was like the only place that publicly had that information. You can’t see the database through the current website now. You can see a version that is stripped of all the powerful photos that were planned with it and the videos. That’s probably the example that I’m most disappointed by. 

The vast majority of my clips, to send them to people in a manner that actually looks nice — kept in the original format in which you published, without any weird coding errors from a website transfer — you have to go through Archives.org and spend like 10 minutes looking for the right issue. I think it’s done a real disservice not just to the writers there, but to the people who relied on those articles as a public service. 

With Creative Loafing, they put out digital copies on the website. I saved of bunch of those. I also have anything that was in print, but it’s not a very good system. I’m a freelance journalist full time, and I wish I had the time to go and meticulously document my stories. Perhaps I should be better at that. I’m fortunate that the big articles I wanted to keep, the Archive.org solution has been the way around that. If that went away, I probably will have lost a lot of my articles for good. 

 

Jonathan Kauffman, food writer, author of Hippie Food

My first 10 years worth of work, I was super scrupulous about taking tear sheets, folding them up, putting them in binders. But when I was moving to Oregon, I found that I’d kept multiple copies of a lot of the big features and issues, and I didn’t even need one copy of some of them. When I left the San Francisco Chronicle, I had five years worth of articles, some of them A1, some of them longer features, some of the shorter bits, and I found it really easy to go through and say, “Oh, I don’t need this.” I tossed out at least half, or maybe two-thirds, of what I’d written. If I looked at a piece and I was like, “Oh, I like that,” or “I remember loving that,” I kept that.

I started writing at the very beginning of newspaper websites. I’m kind of the first generation to have my entire body of work completely made public and accessible to everyone. For a few years, I had to write about 16 articles a week, blog posts and articles. So I was generating a ton of content, and most of it was not very good. 

There have been pieces that have disappeared, and reappeared, and disappeared, and I have no idea why. One of my favorite pieces was about Seattle teriyaki. It helped Seattle rethink the way it looked at these mom-and-pop shops that were sort of all over. I’ve gone looking for it, and it’s been gone. Somebody was asking for it, and I had to go through my paper archives, scan it, send her a PDF, and then I went back online and found it, but it was all jumbled. 

I PDF things, but I’m also old enough that I have disks with all my recipes from cooking that are in a disk drive I can’t access and probably a document form I can’t use. In another 25 years, PDFs might not be here. I probably should print everything, but I haven’t thought about that. 

 

Julia Sklar, science reporter with work in Undark Magazine and New Scientist

Pacific Standard’s closing was sort of an indirect reminder for me. I never wrote for them, so I didn’t have any bylines there that I was worried about, but one of my longer stories that I wrote when I first started freelancing and one that I’m really proud of published on Lenny Letter about three weeks before they went out of business. Sort of hand-in-hand with one of my first big bylines was this realization that just because you have something published that you worked really hard on doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to hold on to it in its original form. I have no idea who is paying to maintain the domain at this time, or if they plan to keep it as an archival website for any given period of time. 

There aren’t that many foolproof tools out there for helping digital journalists keep an archive of their work. All the ways I tried, the PDFs were broken or missing whole paragraphs or weirdly formatted because they didn’t have the original embedded ads or pictures and tweets and stuff that were in the dynamic webpage. Creating PDFs seems to be, generally speaking, the best way to do it. I had been using the Wayback Machine, but then it occurred to me that that’s still online, so if this website goes down, then all my archive links are also gone. I don’t think that will actually happen, but it kinda seems like putting a Band-Aid on the problem.

 

Maxwell Williams, independent reporter with work in Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue, and Bloomberg 

It was at Flaunt Magazine. I had been the editor of the magazine for a few years, and had recently left. I lost a few years of work—maybe 200 or so articles. Thankfully it was a print publication also, so most of the important articles, I’ll have forever. But a lot of web-only content was lost. 

Since then, I simply haven’t been precious, and I never back up my articles. I guess since the nature of journalism has changed in a similar way as photography—more and cheaper, distributed infinitely—I haven’t felt any attachment to my work in the way I did when 50,000 copies of the magazine were printed.

There are a few things I feel a bit of a pang for. I lost interviews and original reporting. There are about three or four articles that were referenced on Wikipedia, that my article was one of the only things about particular subjects, that are now dead links from the Wiki page. Also, the print articles: I did longform profiles with actors like Zoe Saldana, Anna Faris, Kate Beckinsale, and Chloe Grace Moretz that it would be nice to be able to link people to, so that I could get more work like that, but that I only have PDFs to.

If the world wants to remember me, it will. People lose their family photos in fires all the time, and they continue to live. Maybe if I was doing hard investigative journalism like the folks on The Intercept, that has caused policy change, I’d want to keep some sort of record of my work. But I’m just out here doing my thing, barely paying my rent, and I don’t really care that much.

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Tiffany Stevens is an independent journalist living in Seattle, Washington. Their work focuses on the media, the LGBT community, and the triumphs and trials facing marginalized communities throughout the US. Follow them on Twitter at @tiffanymstevens.