Generating New Revenue and Readership from Old Archives

Newspapers are like icebergs. The visible content represents a small fraction of the actual content available.

Think about it. The daily newspaper represents 1/365 th of the year’s content – and since most newspapers have been around for 50 years or more, each day’s content only represents about 1/20,0000 th of the total content available for mining.

While the Internet makes information instant – it also makes it timeless. So an article written in 1886 (once it’s been digitized) can be just as easily accessed as one written in 2006. Newspapers just need to come up with creative ways of mining what they already own.

As a result of the news media’s traditional focus on what’s new, they’ve given short shrift to making their archives easy and enjoyable to access. Readers can search the archives for articles but unless a reader is searching for a specific article or as part of a research project – the archives are neither easy nor inviting.

As a result, newspapers are missing a key opportunity to:

  • Create a new category. Local history is an entirely new category that nobody currently owns.
  • Differentiate themselves. While Yahoo! and Google, can deliver news from around the globe, newspaper archives are one of the few sources of local history and contemporary perspectives on historical events.
  • Increase readership. Done right the archives can both increase the total number of readers and page views.
  • Add low-cost short and long-term revenue. A news story typically has a week-or-less half-life, with the vast majority of readership occurring on the first day. Historical content can generate readership and revenue for years without significant ongoing investment.

So what can you do to leverage the underside of the iceberg?

First, temporarily forget about the “new” part of newspapers –and think about what people might want that you have? Browse through bookstores, the Web and other places for examples of the type of information you already have or people might want.

Second, think about how and why people read newspapers and visit news sites. Do people pick up newspapers searching for specific articles? Or do they browse the individual sections looking for something of interest, something surprising, something they didn’t know before? While we occasionally search for specific items of interest, most people are browsers – and that’s why newspapers are divided into sections, etc. to facilitate the finding of content by browsing. So why should it be any different for your archives?

Third, find the right resources to make it happen. You need someone who understands storytelling, business and technology to transform ideas into profitable products. Someone who can step outside of the traditional newspaper paradigm and look at your content with an entirely fresh site of eyes.

Fourth, start small. Since the majority of the content has already been created, you can easily test ideas and see what works without investing vast resources into the project

In order to help jump start the process, I’ve come up with a few ideas – some very simple to execute and others that will require years to complete and unprecedented cooperation between papers.

Thematic Access

While the archives are a treasure trove of information and sellable content, currently readers are forced to use crude tools to search them and lack the benefit of any kind of thematic structure to guide them.

Just as papers have created different sections of the paper, and books have chapters to guide readers – archives need to have themes, timelines and other tools to engage and guide readers to their destination.

Whether you are wandering through a bookstore, searching a library database or reading a textbook, they are all designed to help you find what you want even if you don’t know exactly where you want to go. They are all facilitating your discovery process by logically grouping and presenting content in such a way that the journey is a key part of the user experience.

Newspapers need to think about their archives the same way.

A good starting point is to find a particular topic that’s hot and has deep historical roots or an upcoming anniversary event, then find stories in your archives that give local contemporary perspectives on the issue, and finally create a subsection with links to the content.

Or think about current issues, whether immigration or land-use and find stories from over the years that highlight the changing perspectives and issues, etc. Just this weekend, a story in my local paper referenced a 1957 disaster to highlight how 50-years later California is still discussing the same problem.

It would have been fascinating to be able to read some of the actual stories – instead of just references to them.

All that’s required is to find matching stories in the archives – both online and on microfilm. Given all the tools today, it’s easy to convert the microfilm to either text, JPEG or PDF for viewing on the Web.

So for just a few dollars, a newspaper can re-use their existing content to create compelling stories. And once the themes/sections have been created – they can continue to generate revenue for little or no cost.


Keyword searches are very crude ways to find what you want. Especially since reading newspaper articles is often more of an exercise in browsing – than searching for specific content.

For example, I tried a search on the site for the “civil rights” between 1950 and 1960. It returned 6,250 articles – which is just too overwhelming.

Now imagine if someone systematically reviewed and catalogued the articles so that the term “Civil Rights” also had timelines and was further subcategorized by race/ethnicity, segregation/desegration, etc. – just like a library database or the Yahoo! Directory.

Now people can do a combination of browsing and searching to find the articles they want – providing a much better user experience and encouraging many more page views and ad dollars!

And rather than every paper recreate the wheel, why not work together to create a standard catalogue that can be used to classify your content. That way users will already be familiar with the structure and more likely to use not only your archives but other papers as well.


Once enough newspapers have created a standard, then they can enable users to search not just their archives – but other participants’ archives as well. So someone could search for Civil Rights Act of 1964 and see articles from multiple newspapers.

Imagine being able to read articles and opinions from the New York Times, The Atlanta Constitution, the Birmingham News and dozens of others – referencing the same civil rights issues. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to be able to effortlessly glide between articles from the South and the North about key events?

Marketing the Archives

Newspapers are always looking for ways to reach younger readers. Teachers are always looking for ways to make history come alive.

Since textbooks tend to be either national or regional in scope – for most of the country the civil rights struggle is something that happened somewhere else, i.e. the South, instead of something that every part of the country has struggled with.

Growing up in Southern California, I always assumed legalized discrimination didn’t exist. Especially since the textbooks treated the civil rights struggle as something that took place in the South. So I was shocked to learn that many houses had legal restrictions preventing Blacks, Jews, Hispanics and Asians from owning them – and that some of the earliest desegregation cases took place in Southern California.

What better way to personalize a historical issue, than by creating localized lesson packets for students and teachers that point them to your archives – so a teacher can supplement his/her lesson plan with local stories.

When I published a community newsletter, I once had a group of local high school students research and write a series of articles about the local history. They were fascinated, amazed and filled with pride that their local neighborhood, known more for crime and poverty, at one time was a hang out for the stars.

So create lesson plans that leverage your archives and then use your Newspapers in Education program to publicize them in the schools. Now you’re not only getting younger readers to interact with you and training them to use you for historical research – but you’re helping educate them as well – enhancing your image in the community.

Get Personal

My father was born just two weeks after Wall Street crashed in 1929. He like thousands of other New Mexicans migrated to Los Angeles in search of opportunity. Over the course of his 76 years, he has either witnessed or played a role in many of the events that shaped Los Angeles, the Southwest and the country, including seeing the flash of the first atomic bomb and becoming the first Mexican American professor at East LA College.

Of course he’s not alone in having great stories to share. There are millions of other people that have just as many tales to tell – so why not encourage them to participate and give them the ability to submit writings, recordings, videos and photos to the archives.

What better way to give your readers a personal stake in your publication than by allowing them to share their stories? Again, by reaching out to the schools, you can transform the students from just readers into reporters and have them interview their parents and grandparents about specific issues and upload their stories to the Archives.

Of course, once people upload their own content, they’ll want to share it with their friends and family. Suddenly, newspapers now have their users marketing the site for them and creating a community.

Given all the hype and cash surrounding community sites, doesn’t it make sense to take a lesson from their playbooks?

Local Sponsors for Local History

How often have you heard the term, “Your local bank, car dealership, etc….” in an ad?

Give local advertisers the opportunity to sponsor local history. Instead of just running a typical banner ad that has nothing to do with the page, the ad can be tied to the content, e.g. “Local History Brought to You by Your Local Bank, XYZ Inc.” – without breaching the firewall between editorial and advertising.

The advertiser is now the sponsor of a cause – bringing local history to local students. Award them with a plaque. Thank them in ads announcing the site. Make them feel good about what they’re doing for the community and what sponsoring does for their brand – instead of just thinking in terms of CPM or CPC.

While Google, Yahoo! Craig’s List and others can duplicate much of what newspapers do – only newspapers have history. So dust off your archives and make them work for you.


  1. Henley Johnson says:

    I could not agree more. Searching archives is such a headache! Newspapers have so many ways they can change the reader experience and I believe you have touched on a very good one. Thank you!

  2. Muskie says:

    I too found your post very useful as I was researching various issues new media is presenting to old media, particularly newspapers. Your article had a few insights but also laid out the issue very well in the introductory paragraphs.

  3. yoyo says:

    It’s a good article , I’ve found it useful for me

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