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Study: U.S. History Trashed as Photo Archives Disappear in Newspaper Closures

Photograph archives maintained by newspapers are disappearing as legacy media go out of business, eradicating valuable historical artifacts for communities throughout the United States, according to a new study by Frank D. LoMonte, former director of the Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, and UF law student Lila Greenberg, B.S. Telecommunication 2022.

The study, titled “Photographic memory: Expanding ‘news deserts’ threaten to erase the visual record of contemporary American history,” was published in the latest issue of the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal.

LoMonte, who left UF in 2022 to become legal counsel at CNN, and Greenberg, former Brechner researcher, examine the consequences of the photo archival destruction and offer solutions to save the images before it’s too late.

Since 2005, the nation has lost about a third of its newspapers – 2,886 – and has seen a 60% decline in the number of journalists, a total of 43,140 no longer in the business. In 2023, there were 204 counties in the U.S. without any local news media, and 228 more counties face risk of becoming “news deserts” in coming years.

Only a fraction of the photos taken by news photographers are published and the remaining photos have traditionally resided in “morgues” maintained by newsroom librarians. While some publishers have had the foresight to donate their photographs to historical societies, many have been deleted or sent to the trash bins.

“These unpublished photos are an irreplaceable resource for historians, researchers and documentary filmmakers, and when they are gone, they’re gone forever,” LoMonte said. “While we found that there are some legitimate copyright concerns about making photos publicly accessible online when their ownership is unknown, that shouldn’t stop us from saving the photos from destruction and preserving them in libraries.”

Drawing on lessons learned in Poughkeepsie, New York, about overcoming legal and institutional obstacles, the article concludes by suggesting possible remedies to counteract the ongoing and imminent loss of newspaper photo morgues. It calls for a governmental and industry-wide commitment to halt the rapid disappearance of America’s visual history.

Posted: May 3, 2024
Category: Brechner News
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