Digital Dark Age Insurance? AP, Preservica Team Up

Written by Gina Smith

The line between what’s history and what’s journalism is fine and fluid, says Associated Press archivist Valerie Komor. The AP’s approach: Save it all.

aNewDomainGina-Smith-anewdomain — Most news reporters, this one included, are well aware that reporting the news is writing history.

But the digital age hasn’t been kind to us would-be historians.

Thanks to space constraints, many of the images included in our stories were never saved — and then there’s the issue of material that’s never been in paper form being saved at all or not being accessible any longer if they were. That’s why the Associated Press has worked out a deal with digital preservation firm Preservica to save its corporate records, which includes reporters notes, images, videos and all the historical wire feeds and new versions of feeds that the AP makes available as news breaks to newsrooms around the world.

With digital-only records, “a number of things can go wrong,” AP’s director of corporate archives Valerie Komor told me. “The playback media becomes obsolete, you no longer have the disc, for example, or the software you need to view it … or the file format becomes obsolete.

“You also get bit rot, the degradation of the actual zeros and ones. We’ve seen this illustrated time and time again,” she said. “Graphics in particular suffer in the archives of news organizations,”  she adds. Graphics “technology changed very quickly, which explains why, for example, you can find stories documenting the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, but few maps showing where and how troops got in.”

Welcome to Komor’s world, a place where, as she says, the line between what’s history and what’s journalism is fine and fluid.

Under Komor’s direction since 2003, the AP has spent the last dozen years coming up with a way to find, organize, preserve and make available its news, video, photos and corporate historical records, which run from 1848 to now.

Those records, simply called the “Archives,” by AP reporters and staff, are available to outside researchers, too.

They run the gamut from the slick, video montages you see in this piece to enormous collections of text, graphics, photos, board meeting minutes, you name it. “When I arrived in 2003,” Komor said, “I excavated the basements of Rockefeller Center, where we were located from 1938 to 2004. There was a lot of saving going on there, and there were rooms full of file cabinets.”

“We spent the first decade — 2003 to 2013 — locating and bringing together the records of the Associated Press, the operation of the company, the news, the administrative operations. About 4,000 linear feet of records on paper. Artifacts. During those years, we also were digitizing materials for either exhibition for use in stories or researcher use,” she said.

Sometimes, just finding the material is a challenge.

“There has also been a lot of destruction over the years due to microfilm,” she said. “Because studies at the time showed that microfilm would last 500 years, editors and librarians began to view microfilm as a solution to the space problem and began throwing out all the original (copies of what) they microfilmed,” Komor said, adding that, in the end, “microfilm sparked a lot of destruction.”

Gathering it, indexing it and archiving it was the first step. Future-proofing it with partner Preservica is the next step. 

In the end, the nation’s newspapers have done a commendable job preserving their own stories. But after all, they are papers.

The AP, of course, never had a paper. “But it had the AP Wire, the A Wire, the B Wire, the Sportswire, the Pacific Tangiers Wire, circulars, editorial correspondence … ”

All that material goes on to populate the news that Americans and much of the world get daily. But “it took AP … a long time to realize it needed to systematically preserve this material.”

Now the effort is on.

For aNewDomain, I’m Gina Smith.

Here are some more videos from the AP Archive.