Tuesday, February 28, 2012

As newspapers move, R.I.P. for the old morgues

[File this photo under newspaper archives]

Back in the days of hot type slugs, pica poles and proportion wheels, we called then morgues.

When I worked in Louisville, Ky., in the late 1990s, The Courier-Journal's was housed in the library: rows of filing cabinets stuffed with old photos and articles meticulously clipped by hand from the newspaper.

But now, as more Gannett papers sell their aging buildings and move to smaller quarters, what's happening to all those artifacts from decades before electronic storage?

My curiosity was piqued by The New York Times's introduction yesterday of The Lively Morgue, a Tumblr blog showcasing some of the millions of photos and negatives collected over the paper's more than 100 years in print.

Click on any of the images, and you'll see the photo's backside, which shows grease-penciled notations of when it was published, plus original captions and sometimes the amount paid to freelance photographers.

Gannett Blog, of course, has its own morgue, in the drop-down menu of more than 6,000 (!) of my posts -- in the blue sidebar, on the right.

Indeed, it's one of several echoes of Old School newspapering on this site. For example, listen when you click on The Teletype Room widget in the green sidebar, and note the tag I've used for this post.

What's the status of your site's morgue? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.


  1. Google had a newspaper archiving project, but it was not profitable for them and they dumped it with a bunch of other things last year. My guess is that sadly, a bunch will tossed by interns into the trash, along with microfiche machines. Some newsrooms have tried to donate papers to libraries, but it's anyone's guess for online editions - who is going to pay for basic server space, maintenance, upgrades.

  2. The damage has already been done. Most things prior to a certain date are "old news" rather than an archive to a lot of the newbies. Not all; some people I knew had a lot of promise... but some others should have just gotten a job flipping burgers for all their journalism-cum-marketing majors taught them.

    Sure, for a time there was a move to digitize everything, but even before that I saw plenty of stuff discarded in the trash. Entire cabinets worth, all of it considered minutiae, none of it examined. Just some filing cabinet wheeled out to a hall with a note to Building/Maintenance to "toss." Forget even "recycle."

    How bad is that? A high-profile crime in my city some years back, a very popular local businessman murdered in a small-change robbery... the Gannett story is nowhere to be found online. So much for local news.

    And while I might be some stereotypical dinosaur, I'm no troglodyte: I've been using the Web as one research source augmenting others, sifting the reliable from the noise, since long before my own site in typical Gannett fashion considered even intranet e-mail.

    But the myth remains that "it's all within reach" and not only with Gannett. Lots of it isn't, my example of a high-profile murder being one instance, and in this case we have to thank the one-dimensional amateurs and the managers who didn't even ask for passionate, albeit unpaid on-their-own-time volunteers.

  3. Look on eBay under the seller named "Historic Images." Thousands of original photographs are for sale. As for newspapers saved on film, that is not a good idea. I recently visited my library's archive and found the film to be brittle and in very bad shape. And I'm talking about film from the early 1960s. There's no money to be made in archiving newspapers, so sadly they will all disappear one of these days.

  4. Shortly after Gannett purchased our paper back in the 1970s, the first couple of publishers tried to "clean up" the building by dumping older morgue files. Newsroom staffers rebelled, and much (but not all) of the old files were saved from the trash heap. Some eventually were donated to the public library.

    The Gannett mentality seemed to be: If it happened before we took over this place, it couldn't be very important.

  5. The Arizona Republic library outsourced the scanning work to a local archiving company, so I believe most of the older prints have been scanned and saved to the newspapers database for resale.

  6. I relied heavily on the morgue when I was a reporter, if only for context about people in the news and the history of my beat. It helped to know the references that my readers used among themselves when discussing the city. Eventually I had a bank of institutional knowledge that was a real asset. Now that the building and the files are gone, none of the new reporters can replicate that experience. Maybe it doesn't matter now when two or three paragraphs often pass as a news story, but I really valued the opportunity to look things up in the clip files, even after the electronic archive began.

  7. We also used the same archiving company that the Republic used to archive our entire photo collection of prints and negatives and positives. Company called Digital Migration out of Phoenix. I believe they were working at multiple Gannett sites when they were do work for us at the Rocky Mountain news.

  8. 6:13 Your last graph reminds me of my current foolish boss, who thinks he's a savior. Bad mouths predecessors who were smarter and better managers and leaders than him. They had the sense to get out instead of ending up like the groveling lackey the current boss is.

  9. Actually, our whole fucking building is a Morgue!!!! Most miserable goddamn place I've ever worked.

  10. Anyone who wants a laugh should go to The Morgue here and look at the summer of 2009. There's no nice way to describe what happened to the caretaker.

    I think I recognize a couple of my posts amid the wreckage.

  11. I used to work at a Phoenix TV station. When we totally updated our facility 10 years ago, everything old was put in a pile in the old newsroom, and was fair game. Old photos, publicity from the networks going back to the 60s, tapes, you name it. Upon cleanout day, the rest went into the dumpster.

    Margaret Mitchell had no idea how universal the phrase "A way of life, gone with the wind" truly is.

  12. The Arizona Republic started the digital archiving effort with photos in its morgue but ran out of money for it and stopped well short of the mark. The photos are a valuable asset, given the paper's dominant role in the state and the state's history. Let's hope that the paper finds a way to save them if it ever moves from its building, which was completed in 1996.

  13. I tried to research photos and articles about the Apollo program from Florida Today, only to find out that the morgue had been completely trashed. No asking for volunteers to digitize, no attempt at all to save it, just trash it all. This on orders from a certain executive editor. This isn't even a case of finding "important" articles vs. yard of the week type of stuff, we are talking coverage of the first man on the moon! Incredibly stupid. At a minimum there were photos that could have been sold online of astronauts and such. It was just short sighted and ignorant to trash it all.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.