Local News Needs Archival Journalism

Adrienne LaFrance takes a long, hard look at the archives of major media outlets, and argues that publishers need to pay more attention to the future of their past. Publications like the New York Times and the Atlantic have decades of great content in their archives, but figuring out what to do with it is tricky:

Figuring out how to manage decades of dated content is costly and time-consuming. And there isn’t necessarily a clear monetary payoff for the effort. Archival access is often a perk that comes with subscription, though it’s not clear how many subscribers choose to pay in order to get access.

At the same time, younger news organizations are building entire strategies around the cultural obsession with looking back. There’s BuzzFeed Rewind, a vertical devoted to nostalgia. (This isn’t an entirely new concept: Magazines have devoted special issues to nostalgia for decades. Check out the cover LIFE magazine’s Feburary 1971 issue or any number of Vanity Fair issues with a Kennedy on the cover.)

LaFrance also highlights Retro Report, a startup partner to the NYT that has made a big splash by following up on old stories to see where they’ve gone now. So it would seem that the audience is there for archival stories, if journalists can figure out how to reach it.

In fact, LaFrance thinks showcasing the archive may be crucial to the survival of news organizations:

On some level, staying relevant in an era in which readers have more choices than ever means staking a place in history. The power of a big brand is the credibility it has established over time. But how can news organizations expect anyone to find their stories valuable today if those same organizations are sending the message that their archives aren’t worth showcasing tomorrow?

Good journalism, LaFrance argues, requires a sense of history. Dipping into the archives lets journalists answer “the questions [readers] didn’t know they had.” Without that context, the news becomes just one fragment of story after another, without any sense of continuity – and it’s all too easy for readers who don’t feel that continuity to skip on to another source of entertainment, or another news outlet. Journalists who want to foster reader loyalty need to get into the archives.

Although LaFrance focuses on major media, these lessons can be just as applicable to local outlets. Local newspapers and other outlets may not have archives of the NYT’s substance, but they also have access – through readers and longtime reporters – to a large body of local knowledge, including local history.

The small markets that local media serve have, if anything, more need of historical reporting than mass media audiences, because it’s all too easy for the history of such places to be forgotten. Newspapers and other local media can do their readers a great service by reviving all the history they can, and build a loyal audience in the process.