Journal Sentinel Archive Disappears
Entire Google archive of more than a century of stories is gone. Why?
“Have you ever borrowed a book, thousands of miles away?” asked those visionary AT&T ads of the 1990s. “Have you ever learned special things, from far away places? You will.”
In 1993, this was mind-blowing science fiction. By 2008, we were already there. Google News Archive launched that year with ambitious plans to scan, archive and release the world’s newspapers in a single public access database. Anyone, anywhere, would now be able to read any edition of any newspaper ever printed. It was the closest thing to time travel in human history. Historians, librarians and educators rejoiced: the future was now!
When the project abruptly ended three years later, the project had scanned over a million pages of news from over 2,000 newspapers. Although nobody is entirely sure why the project ended, Google News Archive delivered an incredible gift to Milwaukee: free digital access to more than a century’s worth of local newspapers.
This wasn’t just a revelation; it was a revolution. Aligning perfectly with the rise of social media, Google News Archive content inspired Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, Pinterest boards, and more. By removing barriers to historical content, Google didn’t just trigger a passing interest in local history. Google triggered a groundswell of historical discovery, engagement and pride.
As a researcher and author, I relied heavily on Google News Archive to uncover the hidden history of LGBTQ Milwaukee for my recent book on that subject. For years, I’ve bookmarked thousands of articles and images for further exploration at a later date. In one lightning bolt moment, all of my Google News Archive bookmarks went from treasure to trash. There will be no later date. There will be no further exploration.
Google’s response to inquiries was chilling: “Google News Archive no longer has permission to display this content.” The response from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel employee was even more chilling: “We have contracted with a new vendor (Newsbank.) It is unclear when or if the public will have access to the full inventory that was formerly available on Google News Archive.”
That’s right. If.
Google spent considerable time and money to digitize our history as a cultural contribution. As a for-profit company, Newsbank will essentially privatize these public resources through a paid subscription service. Unfortunately, our community champions for historical preservation – libraries, universities, museums, historical societies – are unlikely to pay the steep ransom price that would restore free public access. Will anyone?
Until someone pays up, local history might just be held hostage.
In 2016, it’s unnerving to realize that digital content actually doesn’t live online forever, and can disappear faster than yesterday’s newspapers. It’s also shocking to think that technological advancement would be deliberately undone. What happened to that all-access future we were promised?
The timing of this change really hurts. Recent editorial choices at Jsonline.com have reduced a powerhouse local production to an ever shrinking news source. Many readers yearn for an earlier, prouder time when local newspapers weren’t just our window to the world, but a trusted source of in-depth, influential local reporting. We already miss a time when local news really mattered. Now, we’ve lost our time machine access to understanding what “local journalism” used to mean.
This isn’t just a Milwaukee problem – the Fourth Estate is in free fall across America, raising the question of what “truth” looks like in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, Newsbank isn’t answering calls.
After living in the future, we’re now being sent back to the past. Next stop, microfiche reader.