Low Hanging Fruit from The Town Talk:
Newspapers are changing. In the past five years most have shorter stories, fewer and skinnier pages, and less of just about everything. The Town Talk, like other community newspapers, however, still does the one thing that the New York Times, CNN and the bloggers don’t do — it chronicles the area’s history, day-by-day and year-by-year.
The New York Times does not chronicle the history of Central Louisiana because it’s The New York Times; it has been chronicling the news nationally and regionally since 1851, thirty three years before The Town Talk printed its very first edition. It seems bizarre and disingenuous to imply that, somehow, The Town Talk still does “the one thing” that The New York Times doesn’t do, when, in fact, the Gray Lady has one of the richest and most extensive regional news sections in the nation. CNN and those pesky bloggers communicate on different mediums, cable television and the Internet, and though both are relatively new in the grand scheme of things, there are many bloggers, in particular, who do, in fact, chronicle the daily news and history of their community. To be sure, most of those blogs rely heavily on the news produced by newspapers. In my opinion, the importance of a local newspaper is unquestionable.
But just like any business, newspapers must learn to respond to the times and adapt to technology. Unfortunately, a newspaper can’t simply assert its superiority and importance by pointing back to its archives, particularly in an era in which history is rapidly becoming digitized and made available, free of charge, online.
Like many people, when I was a kid, my family bought an entire set of Encyclopedia Britannicas, thirty beautifully-bound, gold-leafed books that ostensibly contain most of the world’s knowledge. My brother, sister, and I were instructed to use the encyclopedias as our primary resource in school reports and presentations, but less than five years after my family made this investment, all of the knowledge contained in those books were made available online and on a series of CD-ROMs. Today, our set of encyclopedias sits on a bookcase in my living room, not because I still use them as a reference, but because, honestly, they’re too good-looking to be packed into boxes and stored in a dark closet.
I also have a great collection of old editions of The Town Talk, and, to be fair, I have learned much more about our community on those yellowing pages that I could have ever learned through a simple search on Google. And although I know I am being critical of the newspaper’s opening paragraph in today’s Our View editorial, I think that, if you set aside its disingenuous claim about The New York Times, they are actually trying to make an argument with which I agree: More than any other medium, local newspapers have remained the custodian of an area’s history.
Expanding access and increasing the availability of those archives are critically-needed. As of today, if you want to explore the archives of The Town Talk online, you can only go back as far as 1999. No doubt, digitizing over a hundred years of daily newspapers would require a massive investment and thousands of hours of work. Sure, you can always travel to the library and, if you know exactly what you’re looking for, you may be successful.
It is encouraging that the Library of Congress is already embarking on some of this work- digitizing newspaper archives- but newspaper companies would be wise to recognize that their archives have a tangible, monetary value. Not only would expanding access to archives help an entire community learn about itself, it would also help news reporters quickly find context for the news of the day. All of the microfilm to which The Town Talk referred in today’s editorial should be placed into a searchable, online database. They could even charge for access.
I have blogged frequently about my opinions of the struggling newspaper industry, particularly small, regional newspapers like The Town Talk, and I recognize that archiving is probably not too high on their list of priorities. But it should be: If newspapers are the custodians of our local history, then their reporters should be fully aware of this history.