History matters, even in digital age

By : 
DAVID PHILLIPS
Reflections from my Notebook

“All the President’s Men” was broadcast on cable television Sunday evening so I turned it on in the background as I prepared for this week’s newspapers. The 1976 movie, based on a book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, chronicles how the journalists pursued the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

I had previously read the book and saw the movie, so I was familiar with the details, but one thing that stood out for me during this recent watching was the immense amount of paper used by the reporters — books, clippings, files and more. In the background of most scenes of the Washington Post newsroom were shelves lined with books and other material used in reporting the news in the 1970s.

It may seem like a trivial observation, but it caught my attention because we’re in the process of moving to a different building for our Spring Valley newspaper office. The Spring Valley office is in some ways the headquarters for our newspaper network, although our billing transferred to our Preston office a couple years ago and each office operates somewhat independently.

Still, there are a lot of things to move in Spring Valley even though it seems we are throwing more than we are moving. Much of what is going into the trash is in paper form.

We aren’t trying to go paperless like some institutions, but much of our records aren’t as important anymore. For example, with centralized billing, our billing records are all in one computer file, which is backed up, for reference. That means we can dump our printouts from each office that used to end up in Spring Valley for our accountant.

We also aren’t keeping as many back issues of each newspaper for reference. Our newspapers are now online, meaning we can reference them in that way, although most of us find it easier to flip through real pages than the virtual ones.

For news reporting, more of our reference material is online than in hard form, which was the only option in the 1970s. We may not be investigating misbehavior of presidents, but much of our information, even names of people, needs to be checked at times and much of that is done in front of a computer screen.

Even technology has changed. I have a few stacks of blank CDs that we used to transfer information to for various reasons. Now, the new Macintosh computers don’t even have CD drives.

I also had an enlarger used to make photographic prints stored in the back room. I always thought I might like to set that up in a darkroom sometime to make real prints in trays instead of ones that spit out of a digital printer. However, the electronic darkroom is so easy, and has improved so much, that I don’t see myself going back to manual processing.

I’ve even begun questioning why we’re keeping some material that could be considered historically important, at least it was considered so in my mind not too long ago. Today, I wonder if the transition will merely lead to a permanent place in storage for many of the items we’re moving to the new building, so I am throwing more than the last time we moved about 10 years ago.

Still, some things are hard to throw without worrying about the possibility of regret. Our main product is called a newspaper, with an emphasis on news, but there is also a sense of history about our business. After all, a former Washington Post publisher coined the phrase, journalism the “first rough draft of history.”

In small towns where newspapers are likely the only media around, the pages may turn out to be the only draft of history for many topics. Most of our newspapers date back to the late 1800s, so the bound volumes of the issues are a valuable part of our inventory to which the public often requests access.

However, we also have documents, negatives, prints and other items used in our reporting that seem like they should be preserved, but lead to questions in this digital age of “why should they?” Perhaps it’s because our electronic age puts such an emphasis on “now” that history just doesn’t seem to be as important as it once did.

Still, as the sign near the local museum states, “History matters,” and I still believe it does, even if there are many people, some of them in influential positions in our nation, who don’t agree.  A lack of historical awareness is like amnesia. We have to know where we are coming from in order to know how we got here and where we are going.

My nod to history during this transition may mean a few more things to carry, wearing my body down, but my mind will feel more at ease knowing I’m doing my part to preserve at least a small portion of the past.