Recently, Adrienne LaFrance wrote in The Atlantic about the digital death and rebirth of a story that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2008. Because “The Crossing,” a 34-part series originally published by the Rocky Mountain News, was born digital, it was not as easily archived as print stories, and its journey from obscurity to resurrection was moving.
I loved LaFrance’s story. It was masterfully written, and it touched on most of the issues that digital preservationists grapple with every day. Coincidentally, the story was published the same week as a special issue of Newspaper Research Journal called “Capturing and Preserving the ‘First Draft of History’ in the Digital Environment,” which is a collection of scholarly papers (including my own) about preserving digital news.
Which led me to wonder: In 20 years, will anyone be able to read LaFrance’s story?
There is no guarantee that we will be able to read today’s news on tomorrow’s computers. I’ve been studying news preservation for the past two years, and I can confidently say that most media companies use a preservation strategy that resembles Swiss cheese.
My contribution to the NRJ special issue centers on news apps, the interactive databases like ProPublica’s “Surgeon Scorecard” that allow readers to read a story, search for themselves or their community in the data, and then figure out exactly how the story affects their own lives. When a data journalist calls something a “news app,” it doesn’t mean the thing you download from the App Store. ProPublica’s Scott Klein explains: “Inside newsrooms, these interactive databases are sometimes called ‘news applications’—but don’t be confused. They’re interactive databases published on the web, not something you buy on your smartphone. Think Dollars for Docs, not Flipboard or Zite.”