The Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced Monday that it would discontinue the print edition of the newspaper. A few weeks ago, the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News published its final issue. When newspapers fold, what happens to their archives?
They usually wind up at a competing paper or in a library. In the last quarter of the 20th century, when many cities lost one of their competing newspapers, it was common for the survivor to absorb the assets of the one that went out of business. For instance, the archives of the defunct Washington Star are now owned by the Washington Post Co. Under other circumstances, a dead newspaper might sell its archives to a museum or an independent investor, but it’s more likely to donate them to a library for a big tax write-off. (When the San Francisco Examiner was sold in 2006, the new owner donated the entire archive, including more than 5 million photos, to UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft Collection.)
Some newspapers hand over their archives even while they’re still in business to save money on storage space. That’s why the University of Texas looks after paper clippings for the New York Times and its extinct brethren,the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Journal American.
In the future, newspaper back issues may be available online. Google launched its advertiser-supported News Archive Program in September with a plan to digitize and index as much of the historical newspaper record as possible. For now, though, most of the searchable material was already online to start with.
What about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News? The parent company of the P-I will retain all print and digital rights to the archives for the “foreseeable future.” The morgue of old clippings takes up two large rooms in the paper’s headquarters, but both archivists have been let go, and former staffers are doubtful that the material will remain in the building. As for the Denver paper, at least one investor has shown some interest in buying the Web site and archives.
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Explainer thanks Bill Barrow of Cleveland State University; Dan Richman and Lytton Smith, formerly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and Rick Mastroianni of the Newseum.