Oct. 21 2015 11:15 AM

Digitized newspaper archives chronicle our history

For an agreement so momentous, the announcement this year that Newspapers.com would begin to archive the back issues of newspapers owned by Gannett Co. Inc., which owns the Lansing State Journal, has received far too little notice.

It's a big deal and part of a national movement to make the nation's history as recorded by its newspapers easily available. The Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities are co-sponsors of the National Digital Newspaper Program. The goal is to “develop an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages.”

Sadly, this initiative is a salvage mission. The sprawling digital revolution has so weakened modern newspapers that they provide but a sampling of what their predecessors offered readers. There is little to suggest that the decline in print advertising revenue and circulation will slow, and efforts to replace both with digital publications is not really working.

But before the decline, newspapers were the voice of their communities. It is remarkable how much information — local news, sports, world affairs, advertising — they crammed onto their pages. Literally crammed. I tallied the news items and ads in the first section — which ran to 18 pages — of the Nov. 1, 1950, State Journal: 120 stories and briefs; 85 large and small ads. And the second section was just as packed.

There were 99 names listed in the traffic fines feature. Sisters Delaine and Joyce Skory had a small post-recital picture. An advertisement warned readers of the dire consequences of higher grocery bills and damage to the health of the dairy industry if that year's Proposal 4 allowing the sale of yellow margarine succeeded. (The measure passed.) These are the sorts of obscure items that filled newspapers of the day. The archive initiative preserves all of it and, more important, makes it available to anyone, anywhere, anytime they want it.

For those interested in Lansing history, family or marriages or deaths, politics, MSU … or before that Michigan Agricultural College, the Lansing State Journal and its predecessors (The Lansing Republican or the more generic State Journal), the resource is unparalleled.

The State Journal, like many newspapers, has microfilms of back editions, but they are closely held. There is a complete set of the filmed archive at the newspaper office on Lenawee Street, but it is not available to the public. Also, the Capital Area District Library has the microfilms collection at its downtown branch. But overall, access is limited. Gannett declined repeated requests to discuss the project or its timetable for the State Journal roll out.

The digital archiving effort requires special equipment like the Mekel Mach 10 scanner, which produces high resolution images: jpegs, PDFs, etc. It takes three to four minutes to process a roll of microfilm, which contains about 700 pages.

Once the pages are digitized, optical character reading technology analyzes the text for search words and how they were originally displayed in the newspaper. Even in archives with tens of thousands of pages, this happens in an instant. According to experts, OCRs have improved dramatically in the last 10 years. But newspapers present challenges. Microfilms often have been stored haphazardly. (At the LSJ they have been kept in a basement cage that in an area that periodically floods.) The typefaces often change and can be quite small compared with current standards. Still, even with some word and letter recognition issues, the power in the hands of professional and amateur researchers is astounding.

The Poughkeepsie Journal, another Gannett newspaper, has been archived by Newspapers.com, and according to Executive Editor Stu Shinske, reader reaction has been very positive.

The Journal is one of the oldest newspapers in the U.S. Shinske said the newspaper had “had 225 years of crappy microfilm” and was published under different names.

But it all sorts out in the Newspapers.com website. “The reaction from readers was immediate,” he said. Some readers have called to say the information in old editions is wrong, that “Sadie was his second wife. I tell them I wasn't here in 1897,” Shinske said.

In Michigan, the Gannett newspapers besides the Journal are the Battle Creek Enquirer, the Port Huron Times Herald, the Livingston Daily Press & Argus and the Detroit Free Press, as well as many smaller weeklies. When the digitization project is completed they will be available for a subscription fee from Newspapers.com, which is owned by Ancestry, the genealogy service affiliated with the Church of Latter Day Saints.

But there are other digitization efforts underway in the state, notably the Michigan Newspaper Project. It is part of the National Digital Newspaper Program and is organized through the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. It has digitized titles that are available on the Library of Congress' Chronicling American website.

There are papers like the Ypsilanti Sentinel, from 1843 to 1900, and the Owosso Times, from 1897 through 1922. The trend is clear, and in coming years more and more newspaper back editions will be available online. One reason is the technology, but it can also be a revenue stream — not really a lot of money, but these days everything helps.