February 3, 2016 Last Updated 1:38 pm

The New York Times series ‘Unpublished Black History’ hints at possible archive strategy

In recent years the NYT has been publishing eBook singles through partnerships with Vook and Byliner, and occasionally larger print books through other traditional book publishers

The series current series Unpublished Black History running in The New York Times is uncovering some wonderful, previously unpublished photographs from the paper’s archives. So far the paper has published a photograph of Jackie Robinson speaking to the Sociology Society at City College in New York, and today is featuring a photograph of Thurgood Marshall at St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Harlem.

The series takes advantage of the 5 to 6 million photographs contained in the NYT’s photography morgue, as well as the thousands of sacks of negatives in the paper’s possession. Times photo editor Darcy Eveleigh, and the creator of The Lively Morgue, a Times Tumblr, was put in charge of the project which is getting rave reviews from readers and fellow journalists.

NYT-blackhistoryFebruary is Black History Month, so the timing of the series makes sense. But one hopes that when the series runs its course that this is not the end of it. One hopes, as TNM has argued for years, that the NYT also bigger plans for the series.

The traditional way publishers used to look at the shelf life of content was newspapers > magazines > books. The thinking being that by the end of the day a newspaper was fish wrap, at the end of the month most magazines are discarded, but books remained on the bookshelf, possibly forever. The Internet and the growth of mobile devices have changed things a bit, but this way of thinking still has value.

Because of this, the more old fashioned of us would naturally be hoping that Unpublished Black History will one day be available in book form.

There are other ways this series could be preserved – a permanent website, a new blog, etc. – but the point is that the publisher’s job is to build businesses around the work of journalists.

This is why I am such a skeptic of the modern way of looking at the news business, that it can be journalist driven. From my way of thinking, it is like creating a new race team and once the race begins finding everyone in the car wanting to be the driver, and having no one working in pit alley.

The good news is that I think the NYT has moved in my direction on this topic. Ac couple of years ago the paper started a series conquering the Civil War called Disunion, and in 2013 it published the book New York Times: Disunion.

Unfortunately, the book was a partnership with Black Dog & Leventhal** so the result was what you would expect from a traditional book publisher: a nice print book with an unimaginative eBook. Readers of the original online series would say that the book was very much like the good book that is made into a bad movie (only more expensive).

The NYT doesn’t need to work with book publishers, after 164 years of publishing I would think the paper is capable of doing what it wants in both print and digital – assuming it wants to.

(Most titles you see utilizing NYT content are sold as singles via Vook and Byliner, which probably drives minor incremental business, but misses out on the possibilities of interactive eBooks. A great example of this would be Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, which made such a sensational web story, but a dull eBook.)

Right now the new editorial series seems to be an attempt to get readers to sign up to become members of its Insiders feature, a naval-gazing digital subscription product that makes the assumption that some readers are obsessed with journalists. Very few actually are, and one would think that eventually the NYY will figure that out.

** Black Dog & Leventhal was bought by Hachette in 2014.

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