Online Front Page Morgue Is Intriguing but Incomplete

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By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Those of us in the newspaper business hope that the Web will save our future. Now, it's saving our past. For a small fee.

A Web site called NewspaperArchive.com has created a searchable database of nearly 29 million pages of microfilmed newspapers, from hundreds of U.S. (and a few foreign) publications, stretching -- in some cases -- back to antebellum times.

Given last week's sale of the once-mighty chain of Knight Ridder newspapers (Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, San Jose Mercury News and others) and its coming dismantling, it seems fitting to feature a Web site that lets users dive into the dustbin of newspaper history.

The site offers a couple of free features, such as the Daily Perspective, which, for instance, on Friday, featured St. Patrick's Day pages from history.

The Newark Daily Advocate of March 17, 1900, clearly understood that it was catering to waves of Irish immigrants. It gave a full page to the emerald day, with a celebratory poem -- illustrated with shamrocks -- and features on the history of the Irish folk and "The Power of St. Patrick." (Today's newspapers would consider such coverage boosterish and patronizing. On the other hand, the Newark Daily Advocate's circulation was probably soaring in 1900.)

The Web site, owned by Heritage Microfilm Inc., could use a less-cumbersome interface. For instance, the Newark page comes up in an Adobe window inside your Internet browser window, so it requires double the scrolling to move up and down the page.

And there are some problems with the text itself, in the photo-transfer of the newspaper pages to film and then to the Internet. I clicked on a link for a March 20, 1886, page from the Daily State Journal in Lincoln, Neb. I zoomed in on a small story, but the type did not hold up under magnification and the item was frustratingly illegible.

To gain access to the rest of NewspaperArchive.com, you have to pay -- $6.95 per month, or $29.95 for the year. The site promises 1 million new newspaper pages per month. You can also order a print of a historic page for $29.95 plus shipping.

Even though the inventory is substantial, there are gaps, especially among the nation's major dailies.

For instance, the Los Angeles Times does not show up in the paper's California section. There's no Houston Chronicle, no Philadelphia Inquirer, no New York Post (est. 1801). The archive shows only four Civil War-era pages from the Chicago Tribune.

I discovered these holes after scanning the site's Titanic-sinks pages and wondered why I was looking at the Syracuse Herald's front-page coverage of the disaster, rather than that of one of the many New York City papers of the time, or the Bucks County Courier Times' (Levittown, Pa.) wire-service coverage of Hank Aaron's 715th home run, instead of the Atlanta Journal's or Constitution's.

In an era when newspapers are shedding readers faster than a schnauzer with mange, one wonders: Who is interested in newspapers -- at all -- and old newspapers, especially?

The answer: genealogists, evidently.

"Obituaries" is listed as the site's top search word, along with "births," "ancestry," "wedding" and "cemetery." NewspaperArchive.com may spare family-tree builders the hassle of driving to the little town in the middle of Kansas where their grandparents lived in order to rifle through the local paper's morgue. (Full of dust mites, no doubt.)

History buffs also represent among the site's top search terms, looking for articles about Vietnam, World War II and U.S. presidents.

For my money, I'd rather page through "Our Dumb Century," the Onion's book of fake front pages, chronicling the major events of the 20th century. Its Titanic-sinks front page, for instance, is headlined: "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg."

Now, that's how you sell papers.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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