Future Tense

Why Milwaukee’s Online Newspaper Archive Vanished Overnight

This is not what an archive looks like anymore.

Sharon Mohandoss, via Flickr

Michail Takach had bookmarked hundreds of articles and images from the archives of Milwaukee’s two big newspapers, the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel, which merged in 1995 to become the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Each one of those was linked to a story I wanted to tell from Milwaukee’s past,” says the volunteer historian. That history—digitized and made searchable by the Google News Archive, a project the internet giant began in 2006—was indispensable for Takach when he was working on his book LGBT Milwaukee.

And then, last week, it all vanished without warning. His research was gone. “It’s a handicap, a paralysis, to lose all those links and those resources,” he says.

The newspapers are still accessible on microfilm, of course, at the research libraries of the University of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Public Library. But moving from a searchable, digitized archive to microfilm with a partial card catalog index, wrote one local researcher, was like going from playing chess on the internet to playing chess via the U.S. Postal Service.

Where had Milwaukee’s history gone?

The archive had initially been made available on Google around 2008 as part of the company’s effort to digitize historical newspapers. That project ended in 2011, but not before Google had scanned more than 60 million pages covering 250 years of history’s first drafts. Those newspapers have remained publicly accessible, and serve both professional historians and home genealogists.

When the Milwaukee project began, Google used microfilms from the papers that had already been uploaded to the ProQuest research database. Because some things were missing from ProQuest, the Journal-Sentinel asked the Milwaukee Public Library to help out. The library let the company digitize decades of microfilms to bulk out the digital archives.

But as Google discontinued support for the project, the paper decided to construct its own archive. “It takes a long time to scan and get the archives up,” said James Conigliaro, the paper’s vice-president of digital strategy. “So we’ve been working on that.”

The paper had an existing relationship with Newsbank, a digitization and archiving company based in Florida. In 2014, Newsbank approach the Milwaukee Public Library about buying the rights to the Journal-Sentinel archives. The MPL already subscribed to two Newsbank services—an obituary archive and a modern database of the Journal-Sentinel–and regularly purchases proprietary databases whose subscription fees are in the low five figures. But it couldn’t afford the Journal-Sentinel archives.

In May, Newsbank came to the MPL again, offering a menu of purchase options. The most expansive offer was almost $1.5 million, with an annual hosting fee. That nearly amounted to the library’s entire $1.7 million annual materials budget. “To be asked to purchase outright something for a million dollars is just out of our scope of possibility,” said Paula Kiely, the library director.

Then, in August, Newsbank let the other shoe drop: According to Urban Milwaukee, Gannett—which purchased the paper in April—asked the Journal-Sentinel to ask Google to remove the paper’s digital archives, which the company did. It’s harder to sell a product when it’s being given away for free, after all.

It’s not unusual for libraries to purchase the rights to historical newspapers: Public libraries in Seattle, Baton Rouge, and Sacramento have paid Newsbank between $400,000 and $1.2 million for local newspaper rights.

What’s different about Milwaukee is that the city is being asked to buy back something it already had—and, in the case of the library’s digital scans, had even helped build.

“Our archives should be available again soon,” Journal-Sentinel president Chris Stegman wrote to Urban Milwaukee. “As we switch over to our new parent company’s systems we are also switching our archiving system from Google to Newsbank. There is a delay in the process but we hope to have them available again shortly. I apologize for the inconvenience and hope our solution is up and running soon.”

Kiely expects the end result will be a kind of paid subscription service, and likely one of higher quality than Google’s offering, which was incomplete.

Still, it’s a reminder, she said, of “how fragile these things can be if suddenly access is declined.” She says she is exploring what partner institutions might aid the library in purchasing the rights.

This is, on the one hand, a story about how a free database challenged the business model of a company that trades archiving services for subscription fees.

But it’s also a warning to researchers like Takach about the perils of reliance on digital storage. As many great contributions to public scholarship as Google has initiated, it has also abandoned programs with ease and without easy recourse for dependent customers. Takach’s links are gone. It’s the modern-day equivalent of Hemingway leaving his manuscript on the train. The trains are digital now, but we’ve got thousands of notes and months of research stored in their luggage compartments.