When you think of archives, the first thing that comes to mind is probably dusty basement rooms, rows of unsorted material and financial records from the ‘60s that should have been thrown out years ago.
But publishers around the world, including in Australia, are starting to rediscover not only the potential of archives to generate interest, but also revenue.
The New York Times collaborated with Google to digitisise the millions of records being kept down in the “morgue” (the basement storage rooms). Through the process of uncovering the archive, the potential value of the assets was also revealed.
Archiving not only allows publishers to access content produced in the past, but also presents the opportunity for content to be resurfaced and monetised.
The value of archives
In 2014 The New York Times published its Innovation Report, a mammoth reflection on the challenges the masthead had faced, as well as an exploration of future directions to keep the company profitable and impactful.
There was also a recognition that opportunities had been missed due to the intense focus on news and news features:
“In a digital world, our rich archive offers one of our clearest advantages over new competitors. As of the printing of this report, we have 14,723,933 articles, dating back to 1851, that can be resurfaced in useful or timely ways. But we rarely think to mine our archive.”
The report identified some of the ways achieved content could be reused to generate revenue in the present:
Evergreen content is, increasingly, part of a newsroom’s editorial strategy, and its existence challenges the assumption that content that is no longer “new” is no longer of value.
Forbes describes evergreen as “content that keeps yielding value long after it’s initially been published,” citing examples such as how-to guides, infographics and original research pieces. Take a good look at any news media publisher and you’re likely to find some evergreen nestled among the breaking news stories.
From prints to custom t-shirts
Selling back-issues and first page prints is nothing new, but the digital age is allowing news media brands looking to diversify their revenue streams to offer customers products and services that go further beyond the world of publishing.
Condé Nast, which owns brands such as The New Yorker, Vogue and GQ, has developed a successful e-commerce sideline where masthead cover art, cartoons and photo prints can be purchased. As well as framed and canvas prints, customers can order the designs on t-shirts, tote bags, phone cases and coffee mugs. Thanks to the print-on-demand model (now a mainstay of e-commence giants such as Redbubble), no inventory needs to be held by Condé.
The publisher uses its “vast archive of nearly 8 million photos, cartoons and illustrations” to source the designs for these products, according to the shop website.
In 2017 the New York Times speculated whether Condé Nast was “sitting on a goldmine” in a period where the traditional revenue model is being challenged.
Cathy Hoffman Glosser, Condé Nast senior vice president for licensing in 2015, is quoted by the Times saying the images “have unprecedented value.”
“We want these assets to become more accessible.”
In Australia, Nine’s The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and AFR offer a variety of products at their online site, The Store, including cookbooks of featured recipes from their mastheads, cartoons printed on tea towels, and prints of masthead front pages from historic days in Australia’s history. But The Store also sells non-news media related products, such as headphones and garments, that have been curated by a team of artists, designers and Nine’s masthead journalists.
Nine also uses more traditional modes of extracting value from archives, such as offering prints of back issues, artworks and photos used in newspapers, and licenses for other businesses to use content for commercial purposes.
News Corp Australia offers content from its photo and front-page archive, as well as back issues:
“Whether it’s a front page to commemorate a significant occasion, a back page celebrating your favourite sports team, or an inside page featuring a special photo and story, get your very own copy printed on photographic paper from any of our 150+ newspapers from around the country.”
The Guardian offers a massive, searchable archive of content from 1791 to the present. Full access to the archive starts at US$35.95/month, but even a free account allows users to create and share newspaper clippings.
News media publishers have also turned their hand to producing books, from the NT News’ volume celebrating its history of outlandish headlines to The New Yorker celebrating all things feline in its Book of Cats. The Economist prints diaries and a calendar.
Trust and accountability
A final function of archiving is providing a secure, reliable and accessible record of the past.
A 2019 research report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that of the 21 news organisations surveyed, “the majority of news outlets had not given any thought to even basic strategies for preserving their digital content.”
“In an era where journalism is already under attack, managing its record and future are as important as ever.”
Of course, digitising can be a long and expensive process, but recent leaps and bounds in technology helps.
Read more in our series on the business of publishing