Archives in the News: The Instability of Digital Formats

In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, journalists were interviewed about their concerns over the instability of their digital work.  As we discussed in class, digitization is not the equivalent of preservation and when an online platform folds, its digital presence is wiped. The article asks a simple question: are journalists concerned that their work could disappear in a matter of seconds?

“The internet is more like an Etch-a-Sketch than a stone engraving—over time, some marks endure, but the rest are swept from the canvas.”

Tiffany Stevens, freelance journalist

The journalists interviewed had mixed reactions to the lack of preservation of their work. Some created their own personal archive, printing each of their articles and storing the physical copy. Others were relieved that their early professional work was erased from history and could not return to haunt them.

One journalist noted that she relies on the Wayback Machine and then, after a moment of contemplation, realized “that that’s still online, so if this website goes down, then all my archive links are also gone.”*

Many of the journalists saw the issue as just another manifestation of the ways journalism has changed in our time. Ultimately, the digital instability of their work was not an issue they were overly concerned with.

However, the issue of the instability of digital forms is not as trivial as some of these journalists might think. In fact, it can have serious effects on understanding history when our work begins to rely more heavily on these digital-first documents. Digital instability has also proven to have damaging effects on our politics.

Last week, a U.S. Senate memo, “An Overview of the Impeachment Process”, which provides legal interpretations of different Senate powers during impeachment proceedings, went missing. The URL for the document, which has been online since 2005, suddenly directed users to a “404 error message.”

The explanation for its disappearance has been that the information was consolidated into a new document, and the original must have been removed during maintenance. However, the old (now missing) document, “has been widely cited during the Trump Era, using its URL as a citation.”**

Used in official government proceedings, an oft-cited document no longer exists. Citations now lead to a “404 error message.”

In a moment when truth feels less tangible than ever, the disappearance of online media coupled with our increasing reliance on them, is a recipe for instability that extends past the lives of our digital documents and effects our history and our politics.

 

*Stevens, Tiffany. “Preserving work in a time of vanishing archives.” Columbia Journalism Review. November 5, 2019. https://www.cjr.org/q_and_a/lost-archives-clips-pdf.php. Accessed November 21, 2019.

**Wofford, Benjamin. “An Important Impeachment Memo Vanished From a Senate Web Server.” Washingtonian. November 13, 2019. https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/11/13/an-important-impeachment-memo-has-vanished-from-a-senate-web-server/. Accessed November 21, 2019.

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