Because the calendar seems to have reset to 1899 (or a dystopian 2099?), last month the billionaire owner of a major online news syndicate shuttered the sites a week after newsroom workers formally declared their intention to unionize under the Writer’s Guild of America East. On November 2nd, Gothamist and DNAInfo CEO Joe Ricketts replaced the front pages of the websites, including Gothamist’s many local subsidiaries, with a letter explaining that he had decided to discontinue publication:
What happened next was akin to hysteria, as the worst nightmares of journalists and digital archivists appeared to have come true. Contributing writers use their published articles as a form of portfolio for acquiring new work. So when it was discovered that as of 5pm the site’s thousands of articles – amassed over over a decade – were no longer accessible, panic began to spread among journalists. The internet black hole appeared to have opened up and swallowed their livelihood, just like those skeptics among us had always warned it would.
Both Twitter and mainstream news outlets lit up upon receipt of the news. The Washington Post reported on the shutdown and its impact on journalists. Jason Scott, Internet Archive employee, sent out a message on Twitter to let affected writers know that the Wayback Machine might be able to help them recover their work.
https://t.co/gFFoE1Imly are over 2,200 grabs of gothamist over 15 years. Please share widely.
— Jason Scott (@textfiles) November 2, 2017
One month later, the Gothamist sites seem to have been restored. Although they are eerily frozen in time at November 2, 2017, archived articles are again accessible.
This begs the eternal question: What will we do when something along these lines inevitably actually happens? Is anyone using Archive-It to preserve news sites? Do news sites have an obligation to archive their own material and then accession it to a repository if they fail/merge/whatever? Is the Wayback Machine really our only fallback? Archivists, as stewards and protectors of information output of the past, need to be asking this question, actively developing safeguards against loss of this scale, and advocating for legislative solutions. We remain relevant only as long as there is pertinent information to preserve. I personally believe that journalists ought be archiving their own work on an individual basis against losses like this; I’m happy to see that a journalist has built a tool that will help others do this.
But I also think that a large responsibility falls to the archivists- are they innovating to facilitate personal digital document preservation? Are they doing outreach to publicize its importance? Archiving may be a profession with its own theoretical underpinnings and vocational training processes, but the massive scale and precariousness of web archiving lends weight to the case for “everyman his own archivist” (to paraphrase Carl Becker).