Old Archives, New Controversy

The New York Times has the most robust online archives of any newspaper, but it’s proving difficult to square their handling of a recent controversy with the quality of those archives.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: For people who get nervous when we talk about hot-button issues, this one might not be your favorite, but I think it’s important to talk this through. Let’s face it: History-focused publications like ours have greatly benefited from the hard work of The New York Times in building an in-depth, easy to use archive of its work. The Times did something this past week that raises some important red flags, and I sort of hate that it did so. (To be clear, it responded to a pair of letters questioning its approach to trans issues by misleading the public on the nature of the letters, threatening to reprimand people that spoke out, and publishing more of the material that raised questions.) But rather than acting like everything is normal, we should talk it through—why the Times often runs into this ditch, why it carries such a huge advantage in the form of archival material, and what we, as researchers and observers, should do. Let’s not sweep this under the rug—let’s talk about what the Times could do better, and whether we should even continue to link them. — Ernie @ Tedium

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When media outlets go astray, can you trust them?

To set the stage here, I’m going to ask a bunch of questions.

Let’s say that you’re doing research on a topic and you find an interesting nugget of information that could open up a new angle or shake out a historic detail that was once missing from the discourse.

Now, let’s say the only starting point for that detail came from a website you feel uncomfortable linking for whatever reason.

You can’t ignore the detail, can you? Do you credit the source? Do you link to it? Do you go Barry Bonds style and put an asterisk next to the link?

And what if there is a compelling story published in this same publication that helps bring to light an important discussion? Putting aside the editorial quality of the work for a second, do you ignore that story because you have a beef with where it was published?

This, I think, is an issue that a lot of journalists and researchers have likely grappled with in recent years because of the rise of questionable sources, changing ownership, and op-ed pages that might reflect negatively on the entire publication. Let me offer an example: Newsweek was for decades a fine publication, one of our best. But then it changed ownership, and those owners have not been afraid to put controversial or divisive views in front of its readership.

Additionally, Newsweek has an extremely messy recent corporate history, as a result of its association with the Rev. David Jang and the beleaguered Olivet University. Here, I’ll quote just one portion from the company’s about page, which reads like one giant train wreck after another:

When criminal charges were brought against one of IBT Media’s principals, Olivet and others in 2018, Chief Executive Officer Dev Pragad purchased a 50 percent stake in Newsweek. The other IBT Media principal, Johnathan Davis, retained his half of the company and became a silent partner, no longer involved in the management of Newsweek.

No charges were brought against Newsweek as a result of the Manhattan fraud and money laundering probe. Olivet, along with several of the other defendants, pleaded guilty to felonies.

A boardroom dispute broke into public in April 2022 when Pragad, Newsweek’s CEO and president, announced that he had left Olivet and wanted to protect the company from “interference” by Olivet members.

IBT Media CEO Davis later sued Pragad in New York State Court, demanding he return all shares of Newsweek. Pragad and Newsweek countersued Jang, several of his followers and the institutions they control, claiming that they owe Newsweek more than $30 million.

Newsweek has pledged editorial independence and writes hard-hitting stories about the university and religion its owners have been associated with, but it’s fair to want to question whether you want to show financial support to a publication like this, knowing what you might potentially be supporting.

So what do you do about Newsweek’s archives? Newsweek was around in the 1930s, and covered many major newsworthy events during that period. Do you just treat Newsweek differently before its current era of ownership? Do you just treat the coverage with full neutrality? (If you’re curious, by the way, the Internet Archive has a large number of old issues of Newsweek that can be used for any history paper ChatGPT won’t write for you.)

I think I have to pull out an example like this to ensure that people aren’t thinking about the current thing through their haze of their own frustration, or their own distaste with that frustration. Because, listen, The New York Times has not had the easiest of times adjusting to the current political era, and there are some people that are upset.

The Times, in its desire to bring impartiality to its coverage, has often tried to toe the line of balance in the way it covers things. And that means that they inevitably run into the trap of giving uncomfortable views undue play.

This was a problem even before the paper’s recent coverage of trans issues, but in many ways, it has shaped that debate. People in more activist political circles were mad about the Times and cancelling subscriptions even before the recent controversy.

Just ask people how they felt about that Tom Cotton column that sank the career of their opinion editor nearly three years ago. That these debates are still happening about the Times’ coverage as a paper of record are healthy, and to be straight up, they should be happening with every major publication, as in a time where news deserts aren’t theoretical, we rely on these larger publications to do more to explain the world to us.

The open letters that circulated this past week regarding the Times’ coverage of transgender issues reflect an escalation of efforts to get the Times to stop both-sidesing every issue in such a damaging way. And for some, that may be enough to stop relying on them as a news source, despite the many areas where the paper is arguably best in class.

There’s just one problem: The Times has a stellar archive, easily the best in the biz. And that makes this debate complicated for archivists and researchers.


The year that The New York Times first launched on the internet in a daily news format. It wasn’t the Times’ first experience with a digital format—as I wrote in 2019, the organization had been operating a fax service as early as 1989, and it also took part in some of the early efforts to put news wires on CompuServe and other similar services—but this was the one that became the most important part of its modern media empire.

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The Times invested in microfilm well before many other papers did. (unphoto/Flickr)

Why the New York Times’ archives are so much better than most other newspapers’

As newspaper archives go, The New York Times is the gold standard, even after all the drama I wrote about above.

It’s not for purely editorial reasons, of course—in part, it represents how the Times had the best strategies for moving into the digital era.

And the reason for that is that the newspaper did its homework. The newspaper has been archived in microfilm form since 1935, with the Times being one of the first large newspapers to do that. (It wasn’t alone—The Wall Street Journal, for example, was available on the Dow Jones News/Retrieval service as far back as 1973. The Journal largely has decent archives. Unfortunately, it seems to have recently forgotten these lessons.) That work paid off in later years when the desire to take that content and make it accessible to more people, starting with the launch of TimesMachine in 2008, which essentially represented a full digitization of the Times’ archives, further expanded on in a 2014 redesign.

I’ve written a lot about the NYT’s archival work over the years, which represents some of the most ambitious archival work that you’ll find in all of journalism. Nearly the paper’s entire history is searchable through its website. Old PDFs of vintage articles are easily findable.

Lots of other newspapers have “morgues,” or newspaper archives from which you could grab old copies. But in digital form, there are few equivalents to the Times, which has both a depth of content and an ease of accessibility. The reason for this? All this work is expensive, even though it can add significant value in the long term, value that the Times has been able to tap into unlike many other publications. (The New Yorker is another example of a publication with stellar archives.)

Where does this leave everyone else? Simply put, this state of affairs has led to the rise of pay services like Newspapers.com or NewsBank, which archive old newspapers and old articles, respectively. In a sense, these kinds of archives exist because it’s cheaper to hand off the work of saving the archives to someone else than it is to do it yourself.

Some other papers have notably found ways to pull in content into their archives. If you work hard enough, you can find some perfectly good archival material from newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, old scanned articles that appear in the search with all the other stuff. But in many ways, it’s piecemeal. (In fact, hint hint, this is an excellent opportunity to improve those efforts, competing newspapers.)

But the Times has transcended these efforts by putting real development work into contextualizing this content.

The Gray Lady has made consistent investments in archives, meaning that if you have even a small interest in history, the newspaper’s value as a subscription is arguably significantly more than that of most major newspapers because those archives are so easy to access.

So much of this work is piecemeal, or handed off to others who can put in the investment and make money from it. By doing it themselves—and, honestly, having the money and resources to do it themselves—the Times has made something powerful.

But unfortunately, that powerful thing carries the baggage of the current leadership, and that’s disappointing.

Look, The New York Times is not a unique case here. Publications publish or do things all the time that might be considered controversial by someone, and in many cases, we fully have the right to not support it financially.

Nonetheless, shutting the spigot on an important research tool is challenging, and even if I try to avoid linking to the Times for any reason, I struggle with the idea of punishing the information for the ethical challenges that come with it.

After all, if you squint hard at anything, you are likely to find a complex ethical debate hiding underneath. For example: Newspapers.com, an archive of old newspapers, could conceivably run into a controversy someday around the use of mugshots in old issues of newspapers. The tide is already turning against the use of mugshots in newspapers, in part because those mugshots stay online a long time. While the newspaper archive site doesn’t have as strong of SEO for its products just because of what it is, it nonetheless is a useful way to keep mugshots accessible on the internet in the long term.

And maybe you have ethical issues with Newspapers.com’s ties to Ancestry.com, which operates a DNA-testing business that is full of potential privacy minefields. Anything’s possible, and this is just one angle to run into.

And this doesn’t just extend to commercial products, either. Many fields, including in academia, have unresolved ethical dilemmas that historians can play roles in exposing.

I think back, for example, to the piece I wrote about “talking book” subcarrier radio stations—and how that history is arguably tarnished because the university radio station that launched the entire concept fired its primary announcer because he was gay, and wouldn’t stay in the closet.

Or how the company that became AOL shut down an entire gay community on its Quantum Link service because one of Commodore’s biggest distributors was owned by a Christian fundamentalist. (Longtime AOL leader Steve Case, who was directly involved in this decision, should be asked about this by a journalist.)

The Times itself has a bad reputation on this front, failing (for example) to acknowledge the AIDS crisis until years after it began, as cited by this week’s open letters to the Times. This is an area where archival work, just as an example, could help to better expose something important.

None of this is to take away from the Times’ current controversy, but to note that, when you’re working with archival information, nothing is ever cut and dry.

The calculus of research, mixed in with reasonable debates on what that research is supporting, creates a discussion worth having. And knowing what a hot potato the NYT’s whole thing is right now, I want to make clear that this debate it is not limited to the Times.

So, with all that said, here is my standard—unless absolutely necessary or unless important to the content from an editorial standpoint, I won’t link to the Times in upcoming pieces, with the hope of encouraging them to do better in the future. (There were opportunities in this piece to reasonably link to the Times in this piece based on this standard, but I chose not to.)

I hope that can change very soon. I am a big fan of their archives. But I want it to be clear that my support of those archives does not extend to their poor handling of trans issues.

At some point, my concern about exposing history and research needs to take a backseat to the real harm this particular source is doing to actual lives.


So, anyway, those are my thoughts. I hope this changes. In case you’d like to share this with a pal, here’s a link.

And thanks again to The Daily Upside for sponsoring.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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