Digital Media and the Case of the Missing Archives

(Walter Zerla / Getty)

One of the poems that earned Robert Frost the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 is titled “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and puts forward the claim that nothing, especially nothing beautiful, lasts forever. I thought of this recently when I was considering the impermanence of digital media. As Maria Bustillos wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year, digital media came at first with “fantasies of whole libraries preserved on a pin.” Digital writers often revel in the notion that they have limitless space, unlike their print counterparts who squish their reporting to fit precious column inches. But increasingly we’re learning how ephemeral that space is. 

In November 2017, that lesson hit home for me and my former colleagues, when the owner of local New York City news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist pulled the plug on those enterprises, deleting all of their archives. (Disclosure: I was laid off from DNAinfo in April 2017, after DNAinfo founder Joe Ricketts acquired Gothamist and put Gothamist co-founders Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung in charge of both sites and the day before news broke that the staff of both sites were unionizing.) After public outcry, the archives were restored, and earlier this year, they were purchased by WNYC.

The WNYC purchase happened while the radio station was embroiled in scandal. In December 2017, The Cut published an exposé by Suki Kim, detailing abuse by longtime radio host John Hockenberry — and how that abuse was allowed to persist despite management receiving complaints about it. Later that month, two more longtime radio hosts were suspended and then fired. The day after the firing, a damning exposé by the New York Times found that WNYC chief Laura Walker made nearly $800,000 in 2016 (up from her annual salary of $500,000 about a decade ago), plus an additional $200,000 annually as a board member of the Tribune Media Company. The reckoning continued into February of this year, both due to external digging and WNYC’s own reporters demanding answers, often on air.

So the purchase of the Gothamist brand and the DNAinfo archives in March was, no doubt, a welcome opportunity to deflect from all of that. In a triumphant announcement, Walker declared public radio and Gothamist “are on a mission to save local news.”

Exactly how they would do that was unclear, and as time passed, it seemed that the funding to make that mission a reality was not in place. This week, Gothamist launched a Kickstarter that seems to suggest that if they don’t meet their initial goal of $100,000, preserving the Gothamist and DNAinfo archives won’t be possible.

I asked WNYC for clarification on that point, and spokeswoman Camille Ortiz told me that the radio station is “committed to devoting time, staff, and resources to honoring the work of its journalists by preserving each site’s robust archives.”

“The Kickstarter is designed to help us do this work and proceed with the launch as robustly and quickly as possible,” she said.

After the Kickstarter launched earlier this week, a former employee of the Gothamist sites, Melissa McEwen, published a post on Medium titled “Why Gothamist Should Stay Dead,” asserting that the company was “a business model based on taking advantage of writers.” McEwen attests that she was paid $500 a month to write or edit between one and three stories a day, and that the company only ever paid 10 percent of the writers in her department. “The only people who seemed to make money off this were the owners — Jen Chung and Jake Dobkin.” The Kickstarter, which still has almost a month to go, met its goal almost instantaneously.

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“History is a fight we’re having every day,” Bustillos writes. “We’re battling to make the truth first by living it, and then by recording and sharing it, and finally, crucially, by preserving it. Without an archive, there is no history.”

In December 2016, the Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group (which is part of Prometheus Global Media), purchased the web magazines Spin and Vibe, and the music websites Stereogum and Death & Taxes. About a year later, Death & Taxes was merged with Spin as the magazine’s new “culture and politics vertical.” An announcement about the merger read, “The Death and Taxes site will remain online but as of Dec. 4, 2017, new stories from the Death and Taxes staff will be published under its new channel on Spin.com.”

A month later, all but one member of the D&T staff were laid off — a decision reported here for the first time. (The remaining D&T staffer, Maggie Serota, was brought on to work for Spin.) By mid-to-late February, all of their work was gone. The writers — now in search of new jobs and in need of clips to submit with applications — got in touch with one another, but no one had been given any warning or explanation.

This information is based on interviews with several Death & Taxes staffers and contributors, none of whom were comfortable going on the record out of fear for their job prospects. At least two of them are still owed money for work they did for Death & Taxes after Billboard purchased it. I reached out to executives at Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter (owned by Billboard well before the other sites were purchased), but received no response to my inquiries. A few former D&T staffers said they’d heard that some effort is being made to get their clips to them, but they didn’t have much information on that.

“I know that we weren’t winning Pulitzers over there for snarkily dunking on the stupid news of the day, but the work was important to a lot of people, especially all the writers who depended on that site for clips,” one writer told me.

They may not have been winning Pulitzers, but they also weren’t just snarking on the news of the day. Among the deleted stories on Death & Taxes were Maria Bustillos’s original reporting from the Gawker/Hulk Hogan trial in St. Petersburg, Florida. One of her dispatches was highlighted in the Netflix documentary about the trial; now, a viewer who wanted to find out more would be unable to find it.

“Original reporting from the 2016 presidential campaign, original interviews, and scoops are also gone now. Vaporized. Finito,” another writer said.

Reasons for mass archive deletion tend to vary. Sometimes it’s a cost issue, sometimes there’s a CMS change, or a redesign, pages get dropped, bylines get lost. Sometimes a website rebrands, or owners change, and the explanation is that the past content no longer fits what they seek to do.

Cafe.com is apparently in that last group. Multiple sources told me that about two years’ worth of work from the site was erased in January and February of this year when the site re-branded as former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s “new media venture.” (The site has long been owned by his brother, Vinit Bharara; Preet joined him after being let go by President Donald Trump in March 2017.) The reason given to the writers whose work was deleted was that the company’s new focus was Preet.

I reached out to Cafe, and got a response from Paul Smurl, president of Some Spider Studios, Cafe’s parent company, explaining that they plan to restore the archives in some form eventually. “We’ve got big plans for CAFE, expanding on the success of our hit Stay Tuned franchise. At the same time, we’re exploring ways to repurpose archival CAFE content on a new channel,” Smurl said.

The D&T writers don’t know what’s going on with their clips; the Cafe writers don’t know that the archives will eventually be restored; when DNAinfo and Gothamist shut down, even workers who were on good terms with Dobkin and Chung returned from the bathroom to find their work had abruptly vanished without warning. It’s ironic that an industry based on disseminating information is so plagued by an apparent inability to freely provide that information to its own workers.

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Mass archive deletion isn’t a new phenomenon. Metro New York, the free, daily paper where I got my start in journalism in 2012, apparently deleted an enormous amount of work done prior to 2010. (The website is such a mess today that the work that’s on there is almost impossible to view without one’s browser crashing.) About ten years ago, the writer Jessica Berger Gross wrote a column for yogajournal.com about being a new mother. She wrote the column once or twice a week for about three years — all of that writing is now gone. (The work she did for the company’s print publication is still on the site.) Time politics editor Ryan Beckwith created a political blog for the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, called “Under the Dome,” and ran it for two years, from 2007 to 2009. After a site redesign, all of the posts disappeared. The same thing happened with his blogs at the next two outlets he went to, “CQ Roll Call” on Congress.org and a Digital First Media project called “Thunderdome.”

“At one point [Congress.org] switched the site around and I stayed up for an entire night transferring the stories that I and another reporter had done. But then they changed the site again later and all those stories are gone,” Beckwith told me. Thunderdome was shut down in 2014, and all the stories he and another reporter did vanished. “Several years of my professional work is gone and there’s little backup on archives like Nexis because it existed only online,” Beckwith said. “The Library of Congress or some news organization out there should be archiving this stuff better.”

When these things happen, reporters are often admonished for not backing up their own work. But that’s a time-consuming endeavor, and not much use when new job opportunities require links to published work. Besides, many staff contracts stipulate that the employer owns all of the employee’s work, so reposting the work on a personal website could be seen as a violation.

No one is very forthcoming about how much it costs to maintain archives. Parker Higgins, the director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told me it depends on a variety of factors.

“They could prep the site to be ‘flattened,’ so that it is just a collection of HTML files,” Higgins explained. “Those are much easier to store and serve basically forever with basically just a (relatively) small hosting bill, because you don’t need computing power.”

According to Higgins, the maintenance of a CMS engine is what’s most costly, not the hosting of files — especially if those files are small. FPF is trying to encourage more sites to do this through their archiving project, by requesting each page of a site and storing it as a static file (“flattening” the site) and keeping the flattened archive away from the original. There are plenty of things news outlets could do while they’re still up an running to bring the costs of the archive down later. “Nobody does them,” says Higgins.

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In her essay for CJR, Bustillos highlights the Wayback Machine, which stores old digital files and “generally adheres to the standards of the Oakland Archive Policy, a template for the use of librarians and archivists in evaluating takedown requests developed at UC Berkeley and first published in 2002.”

When governments make such requests, the Oakland policy quotes the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, adopted in 1939: “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

This raises a tricky question. Is everything published on the internet informative and enlightening? Maybe not. But as the internet seems to increasingly be a haven for misinformation and journalism as an industry shows little to no sign of becoming sustainable, preserving records that were published in adherence with journalistic standards seems valuable—even just as a record of the fact that we once had journalistic standards.

Some of the ire at archive deletion is personal: Writers mourn the loss of the work they produced. In an industry that is often less than kind to its writers, that slight feels all the more pronounced. Consider Laura Walker’s million-dollar-a-year takeaway as she swept host abuses under the rug, or the accusation that the only people who made money off of the Gothamist sites were Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung; all people who are now claiming to be the last salvation for local journalism.

What about this future should inspire confidence in writers hoping to have a livable career? “All it takes is one sufficiently angry rich person to destroy the work of hundreds, and prohibit access to information for millions,” writes Bustillos. As long as this is the dynamic of this industry, the people who actually produce the work for it cannot possibly thrive.

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Danielle Tcholakian is a columnist for Longreads.