Archiving the future: News preservation and Monetization

By: Brad Buchanan

This is part two of a four-part series by Newz Group CEO Brad Buchanan on print media digitization. 

News Preservation

At the Library of Congress, the preferred method of newspaper preservation is still microfilm. “Preservation microfilming remains the most economical and proven option to preserve the intellectual content of newspapers on a large scale.”

This may have been a great system in the past, but the inherent limitations of microfilm fail to take advantage of currently available technologies.

  • Accessibility – Turning the crank on a microfilm viewer is both tedious and arduous. If the material is in a text-searchable, electronic format, relevant content can be found through a simple keyword search utilizing current database technology.
  • Economics – Electronic material stored on servers is much less expensive than converting paper to microfilm. An external two terabyte storage device (enough to hold all editions of most newspapers going back to their inception) costs about $80. Yet the LOC contends that microfilm is the “most economical” preservation methodology.
  • Longevity – The LOC’s primary argument for microfilm over digital is that microfilm lasts 50 years or more, while a computer drive may only last 10 years or less. But this does not take into account the ease of conversion to another medium or device. Technological scalability is not only built into each new advancement in data transfer and storage, it is an inevitable evolution in the private sector. Transferring data from one electronic hard drive to another can be done with a few keystrokes. Microfilm conversion is both laborious and expensive.
  • Unnecessary Conversion – Most current newspapers start in an electronic format, both from reporters (text files), or from the laid-out page (PDFs sent to a printer). In either case, storage on a digital device requires no conversion to a different non-digital medium, eliminating transition costs.
  • Web-based news access and storage – Electronic news preservation positions the industry for the future. As news organizations continue the move to web-based distribution, digital preservation infrastructure is already in place for “born digital content.”

Much like copyright rules, the governmental standards for preservation have not yet caught up with changing technologies or news consumption behavior. This reflects the difference in approach between the public and private sectors. If news material is being created and transmitted electronically, the course of least resistance (and least cost) is to store the information on digital devices.

Potential Monetization

There has been much discussion about how to monetize newspaper archives, and this is a complicated topic with several underlying issues. On the supply side, each publication wants to maintain its own archives, and this is right and proper. Yet, as noted above, the cost of converting and maintaining an archive can be substantial, and the financial benefits are questionable. On the demand side, how much are people willing to pay for access to community newspaper archives, considering consumer buying trends in the digiverse?

In order to monetize news archives in the future, it is imperative to examine how news consumption patterns are changing. Here are some consumer shifts that may be relevant:

  • Device shift, from PCs to mobile – about 44% of all computing time is now mobile, doubled since 2008. News content should be adapted to mobile devices.
  • Content shift, from bundled to fragmented – Traditional newspapers, linear TV viewing, etc. is eroding (bundled media). Media consumption is growing more eclectic and fragmented. People only want to view content that interests them.
  • Time shift, from programmed to user-driven – Rather than waiting on their paper to be published every Wednesday afternoon, people increasingly want news when it happens, and they want to view it at their convenience. In the entertainment field, for example, instead of tuning in at 8 p.m. every Tuesday to watch a favorite show, they are choosing their own consumption time via Tivo, Netflix, HBOgo, etc. This same pattern is becoming more prevalent in the news business.
  • Information shift, using many sources to gather data – People are increasingly using non-traditional information sources, such as social media, consumer reviews, price comparison tools, expert opinions, and so forth to make buying decisions. This may be advantageous to re-purposing old news content, because certain information cannot be found outside of newspaper archives.

From this quick overview of changing consumer patterns, we can begin to see some implications for the monetization of news archives.

  • While there is still much debate about the efficacy of paywalls in electronic news distribution, most research papers and periodicals have a per article charge, and people are willing to pay. For example, Science and Nature magazines have a $32 – $50 charge for each article. Newspaper archives should rightly be marketed as “research materials,” so they will be properly positioned in the minds of consumers as information that carries a purchase premium.
  • Archives should be aggregated by state or region, to more closely meet geographic market forces and draw more traffic. The more periodicals available on a certain site, the more probable it is that researchers will want to access it.
  • Any centralized repository of historical news will require database management and maintenance. Shared resources will help lower the cost of archiving to each participating publisher.
  • Archives must be properly indexed and have appropriate metadata, along with snippets, so consumers can be sure they are getting the information they want before paying. This requires optical character recognition (OCR) and powerful search tools to allow searches by keyword, date range, geographic area, etc.
  • Archives should be adaptable to mobile devices. It is difficult and time consuming to unbundle a newspaper page into discrete articles. This is especially applicable to historical newspapers. As more news companies move to born digital content (which is already mobile-friendly), this problem should dissipate over time.
  • It is possible that some of the costs associated with archiving can be offset through aggregated resale of current content in secondary markets, with royalties back to the content originator (the old clipping service model brought into the new millennium). Uploading current editions also helps draw information consumers and build the archives of the future with no negative impact on the original news franchise. This model is presently being tested at newzgroup.com.

Next Tuesday’s blog post will look at a market demand analysis and a plan of action for digital archives.