Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Journal and Sentinel Archives Threatened

Newsbank, JS owners look to squeeze libraries for millions and they can't afford to pay it.

By - Feb 10th, 2020 10:36 am
Milwaukee Sentinel Indexes. Photo by Michael Horne.

Milwaukee Sentinel Indexes. Photo by Michael Horne.

The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee is a a Digital Humanities Project sponsored by the History Department in the College of Letters and Science at UW-Milwaukee. The growing database includes “approximately 700 entries on Milwaukee history topics ranging from arts and culture to philanthropy and nonprofit organizations to business and labor. … Entries include footnotes that allow readers to see where authors found their information.”

Many of the footnotes in the site naturally led to stories in the city’s historic daily newspapers, particularly The Milwaukee Journal (founded in 1882) and Milwaukee Sentinel (founded in 1837) which merged in 1995.

It appears that the encyclopedia, like many other sites, has been partially crippled by the frequent disappearance of The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel archives. That “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t” resource is the only link to a searchable database of the city’s history as recorded in the daily press — an irreplaceable public asset, and one that should be readily accessible. Previous to 2016, the old newspapers could be freely found and searched via Google and NewsBank. Since then it has been hit-and-miss.

An Unexplained Blackout

On February 6th, NewsBank had one of its intermittent blackouts, causing some concern to, among others, Carl Baehr, a retired librarian who writes the City Streets column for Urban Milwaukee.

Baehr posted a message to an e-mail group:

Looks like we no longer have online access to  Milwaukee newspapers for most of the 20th century. The Journal and Sentinel are no longer available in NewsBank or the Google Archives. It is very demoralizing and upsetting.

The archives reappeared shortly thereafter, leading Baehr to write, “My email must have worked, at least temporarily. NewsBank is online again.”

Another person on the group made this observation:  “A few times over the past two years, NewsBank’s historic The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel would sometimes disappear on the first of the month of a quarter (e.g. January 1st, April 1st, etc.) for a day or more and reappear after phone calls.”

History Held Hostage

Professor Amanda I. Seligman, Ph.D., is the former chair of UW-Milwaukee History Department and a co-lead editor of the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee History.

She wrote in an e-mail chain:

All the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee links to the Google News archive are permanently broken, and the fun Understory we published about interpreting the details of the URL obsolete.

I’ve had conversations with [Journal Sentinel editorial page editor] David Haynes at the paper and Michael Doylen at the UWM library about this issue, which is clearly about the new [Journal Sentinel] owners trying to monetize an asset. … Last I heard, UWM could not afford the asking price for digital access.

Gatehouse Media merged with Gannett in 2019, giving the Journal Sentinel its fourth owner in four years. Each firm has seen the archives as a desirable source of revenue, to be provided ideally at taxpayer expense. The target, in this case, is the Milwaukee Public Library.

Library Rejected NewsBank $1.5 million Demand in 2016

As I wrote here in August, 2016, when the archives first disappeared, City Librarian Paula Kiely received a visitor one day:

…In spring, a salesperson from NewsBank came calling to Kiely, offering on May 3rd to sell the rights to the database to the library, this same database which had gotten 30 percent of its materials from the library. The offer would expire on May 30th.

“The price they were asking for the database was a surprise, so we chose not to act on it,” Kiely said.

For the Journal archives alone from 1841-1960, the company was asking for a $1.5 million payment! — with an additional one per cent assessment for the next three years. “We would own the database,” Kiely said.

However, the entire materials budget for the library system is $1.8 million for the year. And the $1.5 million was only for about half of the original archive, the other half being the Milwaukee Sentinel stories. The economics were impossible for the library.

Kiely says she contacted Journal Sentinel executives who were not aware of the sums asked by NewsBank; nor, she said, were they aware that 30 per cent of the archive was based on library-owned documents.

Milwaukee historian John Gurda posted on the recent e-mail thread his recollections:

It’s really been hit and miss. Google is apparently gone for good, and Newsbank is a wild card. When I was on the MPL board, they wanted something like $2 million for access, even though a significant number of the original papers came from MPL’s collection.

A Library Insider’s Account

A Milwaukee Public Library employee who is not authorized to speak for the library gave an off-the-record account of the current status:

MPL was notified in October that Google News Archive could remove The Journal and Sentinel later in the fall and NewsBank (NB) could end our temporary access to their historic TMJ/MS [The Milwaukee Journal/Milwaukee Sentinel] trial database.  Google removed TMJ/MS in early December, but are still sitting on their servers.  They removed them once before when NB first gave MPL temporary access to their historic Journal and Sentinel trial database in 2014, which only consisted of 1967-1968 issues.

Don’t forget, Google’s TMJ/MS scans were on MJS’ website, but were removed when there was talk about a possible MJS-NB joint project, but MJS may be considering another company.  MJS ownership changes (Scripps, Gannett and Gatehouse) muddies the water more.

As John [Gurda] said NB wanted MPL to pony up nearly $2 million to host + annual 5-figure subscription payments.  NB will not permit a consortium (e.g. MPL, UWM, Milwaukee County Historical Society?, Marquette University?, Wisconsin Historical Society?, et al) to split the bill and share the database.  It’s one or none.

NB kept adding years to TMJ, MS and even MJS.  They suggested we buy access a decade at a time and find sponsors.  A decade would cost 6-figures.  Donors are more interested in bricks and mortar, and children’s literacy.

MPL’s 2020 book budget for books, DVDs, CDs, audiobooks, databases, e-books, et al, for Central and 12 branches is $1,660,343 (p. 89) in a $ 23,559,805 budget.

If NB permanently ends MPL’s temporary access to their historic TMJ/MS trial database, it would greatly damage our ability to answer questions in person, on the phone and online.

A Professor’s Concern

Seligman, of The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, responds to the above letter:

I’m really shocked at the asking price … There is simply no way that UWM is going to come up with that money. Our librarians are excellent stewards of the dollars provided by the state, tuition, grants, and gifts to the university. But having worked closely with the libraries over the years, especially recently, I can’t imagine they can come up with that kind of money. I agree … that donors won’t be interested in supporting access to this kind of resource–the focus at UWM is student scholarships, plus building projects (like the planned new UWM library archives!). Research support is the job of the university, but given the austerity of the past 10 years plus more cuts coming due to enrollment drops, this just won’t be in the offing.

Fortunately we still have access to the microfilm editions of the papers; what we have lost here is search. Which means some kind of research remains practical (like my beloved EMKE entry on Gertie the Duck, which includes an Understory that used to link to all the original coverage) but other kinds become basically impossible.

Unsettled Future

The NewsBank website shows only seven Wisconsin newspapers. Six are Madison newspapers, with the latest dating to 1891. The sole Milwaukee newspaper represented is The Milwaukee Socialist of 1876-1877, of which only three editions are available. That newspaper was in German.

It strikes this observer that some sort of legislative and/or judicial remedy must be made to restore public access to a resource of which much is in the public domain. It is not merely the historians, journalists, academics and genealogists who are at a disadvantage at pursuing their research — the same goes for the general public, and generations yet unborn.

The lack of access affects reporters at the Journal Sentinel itself. At a time when resources are dwindling a searchable database of our history is essential for comprehensive study and reportage of countless issues. That this public tool should be held for ransom by a corporate interests for their profit at the public’s expense is unconscionable. The motive is to squeeze every penny from their assets, as they are being dismantled.

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4 thoughts on “Plenty of Horne: Journal and Sentinel Archives Threatened”

  1. hillard says:

    This is incredibly concerning. Also, the gall of demanding payment for access to an archive they would not have were it not for the very people they are now trying to bilk out of millions of dollars is truly astounding. I’m writing my representatives.

  2. hillard says:

    These are the moments when I am truly grateful to Urban Milwaukee. I would never have known about this were it not for this article. Thank you, you guys have more than earned my subscription fee.

  3. frank a schneiger says:

    There is the related issue of another invaluable archive, the holdings of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society on 27th and Center Streets. With scant resources and enormous personal effort, the Society’s founder, Clayborn Benson, oversees an extraordinary collection of materials, much of it uncatalogued because of that lack of resources. Anyone with an interest in the region’s racial history should visit the Society and marvel at what has been acquired. While JS should be condemned for its actions, Clayborn Benson should get the money and support needed to turn the Historical Society into the major research and gathering place that it deserves to be.

  4. Thomas Sepllman says:

    Our history but then again how often do we have lose our history before we learn that our history is ours only if they choose to let us in. Will they destroy it?? We need to buy it now and know that the price we pay will be the best price because as it goes on they will just jack up the asking price. They are evil In the Black Church when something was needed they all got together and started to sing and dance and so it was in some way the money was raised Even John can point out to some of his clients the importance of this archive and so we need a 100 $10,000 1,000 $1,000 or 10,000 $100 We are good for a few of these $100’s Yes something else to add to the plate but then again to have forever inside our library and to know who made it possible because a few people in 2020 cared enough

    I will be getting the digitized Beaver Dam Daily citizen at 150 a roll I guess we can begin to calculate what it would cost to digitize the paper and then go back and talk price and compare products but then again on whose plate does this fall
    Peace Tom Spellman
    Always remember the genealogical history of Ireland was destroyed as it protected those who rose up in 1919

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