Survey: Is N.C’s Born-Digital News Legacy Being Sent Down the Memory Hole?

Just over 15 years ago the first big news story I worked on also turned out to be the first big news story of the digital news era. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke online, with the first and biggest stories of the 13-month saga posted online before they went into print. And it wasn’t just news stories — as Monica Lewinsky pointed out in her fascinating TED Talk last week, it was hundreds of pages of raw documents, photos, audio and video.

It wasn’t the first time the talk of presidential impeachment wafted through the streets of Washington, but it is the first scandal that is nearly impossible to re-create using the first rough draft of history. Those digital-first stories — the time and manner in which they packaged and presented online, the live online discussions, the changes big and small to the wording — are almost totally lost down a digital memory hole.

Don’t believe me? Go to https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/clinton/clinton.htm and click on the “Poll Taker.” It’s lost to a technology that’s long been made obsolete.

When I want to add this digital innovation to my list of “clips” for my resume, I often can’t. When I want to illustrate for my UNC journalism students a first-hand account of media innovation, they have to rely on their imaginations. And when historians and The Washington Post company look back on it not just 15 years from now but 150 years from now, they won’t have the benefit of some of the most ground-breaking¬†features that drove public opinion.

But what’s more amazing is that if you work in a newsroom today, the legacy of your born-digital content is probably at risk just as much as mine was at the dawn of the digital news era. If you run a digital news business, one of your greatest competitive advantages is going 404 every day. And if you live in one of the communities served by a newspaper with a website, the story of your generation is being written in digital sand.

To help fix that, the National Endowment for the Humanities is sponsoring a survey of North Carolina news organizations to collect information about how they use and preserve born-digital news. It is part of the “Dodging the Memory Hole” work led by the Educopia Institute and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. They are hoping to launch other state-wide surveys in five more states later this year.

If you work at a news organization in North Carolina, please fill out the survey at  httpss://www.surveymonkey.com/r/chronicles_NEWS, or ask one of your colleagues to do so.

The results of this online interview will be used to by librarians, technologists and journalists to establish industry standards for preserving born-digital news and to propose future projects that help news organizations and communities preserve and protect their legacies.

The initial findings are going to be presented at a gathering of North Carolina’s journalists, librarians, scholars, technologists, publishers, vendors, and other interested stakeholders on May 11-12 in Charlotte. You can also register for this event at https://educopia.org/events/dmh

The Educopia Institute, a nonprofit that works with educational and cultural institutions to increase their impact, will keep the responses completely anonymous in all research results, so that you and your organization cannot be identified. The research results will focus only on aggregated findings.

If you have questions about the survey, please contact Katherine Skinner at (404) 783-2534 or katherine@educopia.org.

Preserving born-digital news is just as important as finding a viable business model for the creation of it. This generation’s digital native must tell the stories of our time and making them available to future generations so they know how and why we made this environment they will inherit.