Newspaper and magazine archives conjure up images of dusty stacks of yellowing newsprint or bulky microfiche readers. The New Yorker’s office at One World Trade Center contains a version of this: file cabinets of index cards dating back to 1925 organised by topic, from Richard Nixon to wishing wells; scrapbooks filled with clippings by authors from Alice Munro to Vladimir Nabokov.
But back issues are getting a fresh digital life as publications tap their archives to attract new readers, add context to current stories and increase time spent on their sites — and perhaps advertising revenue.
“Suddenly, magazines have a backlist,” says Adam Moss, editor of New York magazine.
Catalogues have long played an important role in music and film, where sales and licensing rights provide revenue over decades. Magazines repackage their work into books, such as the New Yorker’s cartoon compendiums and Rolling Stone’s collection of interviews.
Digital news archives have typically been available to subscribers and academics. At the New Yorker, every article since 2007 is online, along with many older stories, and complete issues of the magazine are available in searchable digital replicas.
The New York Times’s Times Machine site, relaunched in 2014, contains every issue from 1851 to 1980. The Guardian’s digital archives contain 13m articles dating back to 1791.
But merely having access to back issues does not mean that the average reader will know what to look for so publishers are developing new tools to repackage old content.
“In that vast sea of 11.3m [New York Times archived] articles, it’s unrealistic to expect most people to be able to find what’s cool,” says Evan Sandhaus, the newspaper’s director of search, archives and semantics, who helped develop Times Machine.
“A typical user’s response is to look up their birthday. Then it’s overwhelming with the weight of history. It’s our job to find the most interesting, relevant items in archives today and direct our users to them,” he says.
Social media is a natural fit: nearly a third of adults in the US get news on Facebook, and half of social network users have shared a news story, video or image, according to researcher Pew.
A dedicated Twitter feed, @NYTArchives, highlights historical content from Times Machine, available outside the Times’ paywall for a week, and its online treasure trove of stories since 1980.
The account often features articles about well-known people who were born or died on a particular day, but Mr Sandhaus and his team also dig up archival material connected to current events. When Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, died last month, the account posted a 1959 article from when he first came to power. Times Machine does not carry advertising but post-1980 stories do, meaning those links can generate revenue for the paper.
Readers can also buy reprints.
“When something happens in the world that has a resonance we can go to the archives and retrieve something rich, inevitably,” says David Remnick, New Yorker editor. The 90-year-old magazine has also tapped its archive for a new video documentary series streaming on Amazon’s online service.
Last summer, The New Yorker made its archives and new articles free to read for four months. During that period, nearly a quarter of visitors to its website read archival content and those that did spent an average of two minutes more on the site, according to the magazine.
As companies become publishers, they too are looking for ways to capitalise on the growing amount of content they produce, says Nick Rappolt, chief executive of Beyond, a digital design agency that has worked with brands including Virgin and Google. His group helped develop Google’s cultural institute, an effort to put photos, videos and documents online in a searchable archive.
“People are coming to the realisation that they are sitting on valuable assets. They are trying ways to unlock that and monetise it that weren’t available before the internet reached a certain scale,” he says.
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