Do Newspaper Archives Need a “Dead Man’s Switch”?

You might not have heard about this, as the US media seems mostly occupied with covering the US presidential election. But it happened: on March 4th, the Turkish government seized Zaman, the most widely-circulated newspaper in Turkey. This was at the direction of Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has a longstanding beef with opposition journalists.

The shutdown of a newspaper by a government is bad enough. But the government of Turkey went one step further and deleted Zaman’s entire digital archive. 27 years of newspaper archives, in their digital format, gone. Blammo. And with the old history gone, why, you’ve made space for brand new history! As Mustafa Akyol noted, once the paper was seized and the archives destroyed, things were suddently very different: “A day after the police took full control, Zaman, which had lately become very outspoken against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his rule, found itself with an opposite political line under a trustee appointed by the government to manage the paper.”

And there is no historic argument against this new line, because thanks to the destruction of the archives, there is no history – at least, no history that can be easily accessed and distributed. The history is only what survives, fragmented and quoted, in print and online, and what stays in people’s heads – and God knows how fragile that is.

It seems so unlikely that such a thing would happen here in the United States, or in any country which holds freedom of the press as a core principle. But consider Hillary Clinton’s statements about Nancy Reagan and AIDS, the politest term for which might be “reframing”. With the sharp rise of authoritarianism, driven by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, is it that difficult to imagine government bodies removing a story here or there, “tweaking” a decades-old quote, or simply removing archives that don’t quite fit the tone of the new administration?

The idea isn’t entirely without precedent. After all, the Supreme Court will keep revising its decisions for years after producing them. There’s no legislated requirement that I know of to inform the public of these changes, but the Supreme Court put mechanisms in place to track and highlight the changes to its decisions — oh, it must have been decades ago. Oh, sorry, I’m wrong; it was last October, a few months after a Twitter bot began crawling the SCOTUS decisions and tweeting about possible changes.

On the other hand I might be comparing apples and oranges. Supreme Court decisions are of course a product of the US government. Seizing or altering the components of a fourth or fifth estate entity would be much more difficult.

…But, once done, so much more final. Supreme Court decisions, as the product of the government, are in theory public domain. Newspapers are businesses. They must take steps to protect their intellectual property against theft and misuse, and therefore often have paywalls restricting archives or even current content. Because of this protection their archives are also vulnerable to seizure or destruction. Digital impermanence is enough of a problem without being deliberately orchestrated by a government entity which doesn’t like the cut of your jib.

For newspapers, paying the overhead is the immediate problem. Keeping the lights on, keeping up the advertising revenue is the problem. Yes, journalism is important. But if you haven’t paid the power bill you’re not going to get very far. Paid access to archives provides revenue. Paying subscribers provides revenue. The threat of seizure or censorship by a government entity might not even be on your radar. Why endanger your cash flow by making your archives more open?

I wonder if there’s a way to protect a newspaper’s archives while not interfering with your business. Would it be possible, for example, to have the Internet Archive do a “second level” of crawling that would store newspaper archives under a different classification, so they would not be released into the Wayback Machine until the activation of the dead man’s switch? An archive is seized; a newspaper goes under. Instead of that history being gone, it’s released in the Wayback Machine. (Or, if you’re concerned about intellectual property, it’s held for x years and then released. The point is, it doesn’t just vanish.)

Or for the finest in distributed archives, why not a torrent? Torrent seeds are planted different places around the Internet. After a newspaper site fails a check after x tries over y days, or an e-mail goes unacknowledged after z days, the torrents are automatically put online for anybody to download.

I’ve expressed before my dissatisfaction with all the 2016 US presidential candidates. Yet at the same time I don’t think we’re quite at Mr. Erdogan’s level of oppression. There are any number of reasons to want to provide emergency access to your archives, however. Bankruptcy, hacking, disasters. Making an attempt to safeguard our reporting of our times – as flawed and myopic as that perspective might be! – is something we owe history and our culture.

5 thoughts on “Do Newspaper Archives Need a “Dead Man’s Switch”?

  1. Excellent post! Very important topic also — thanks for writing. And I too worry that this (or something like this) could happen here.

  2. Huzzah!! This is very scary. It could very easily happen here, if the government had cause to believe the owner or owners were terriorists. Simple as that.

  3. It would not surprise me to find out this has already happened here, and we just don’t know about it yet. Very scary stuff. A very much needed highlight. Even “laypeople” should do what they can to protect history / archives — of all types, in as many formats as possible.

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