Many observers of the recent U.S. presidential election have charged that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter facilitated the spread of misinformation during the campaign to an unprecedented degree. It is now widely accepted that “fake news” undermined informed discourse and perhaps even affected the outcome of the election. Social media do in fact contribute to the echo chamber effect, where rumor and pseudo-facts go unchallenged and go viral. Mark Twain’s saying that “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” has never been more apt.
It is the responsibility of libraries in general to support an informed electorate, and research libraries in particular to ensure future citizens an accurate and complete public record. In fulfilling that responsibility the traditional news industry is a natural and necessary partner. Newspapers have been called the “first, rough draft of history,” and trust in the journalistic record is based on a long history of independent, fact-based reporting. This is why libraries have invested heavily over the years in preserving credible newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Globe and Mail.
Unfortunately the “real news” industry is under siege today, not only by competition for advertising dollars from social media and aggregators like Reddit and Yahoo!, but from other forces that conspire to undermine the integrity of the public record. The news industry in the past fended off dangerous attempts to encroach upon press freedoms. In a landmark 1964 decision, New York Times vs. Sullivan, the Supreme Court reaffirmed protections the Constitution affords U.S. publishers against politically motivated lawsuits.Yet extremists of many stripes now actively stoke hostility to the traditional media. These economic and political factors threaten news publishers’ and broadcasters’ ability to maintain a high standard of coverage of world affairs and investigative reporting.
Since its founding in 1949 the CRL community has helped preserve the historical record, by identifying newspapers, broadcast transcripts, and other materials that were not likely to be preserved by others, and by collecting, microfilming and (more recently) digitizing them for scholarly access. However, in the digital era ensuring the longevity and integrity of the public record is a different task, and digital news content is no longer being preserved by memory institutions in any meaningful way. Existing Web archiving capture technologies are proving inadequate for harvesting highly dynamic news content, and our national libraries show little capacity for preserving born-digital news at scale. What is being preserved is being maintained by the news organizations themselves. The New York Times, for example, recently digitized its entire back files, from its first issue in 1851 forward. It is now in the process of converting those files to html and xml, to facilitate search and discovery. As The Times and other news organizations struggle financially, however, this immense record of American and world events is now at risk.
The stakes are high. Degradation of the journalistic record would have grave consequences for the future of research, and libraries must actively engage the major news publishers to prevent it. More than 200 U.S. libraries in fact are now part of an effort to use the power of the purse to gain a stake in The New York Times: they are investing through CRL in an academic site license to The New York Times online. This arrangement has brought the publisher much-needed new revenue and close to a million readers. It also buys our community a say, albeit still a small one, in The Times’s decisions on future content and services. We at CRL hope to expand this support, and we are working to similarly engage other providers of “real news." It is how we must do preservation today.
Bernard F. Reilly
Center for Research Libraries