Project Q Atlanta silently disappeared from the web one day in April, sending 14 years of crucial LGBTQ community journalism into a digital netherworld from which it may or may not return.
It joins a long list of digital media – famously including Creative Loafing Atlanta – whose archives have been totally or partially lost to closures, rebrands and technological changes. Preserving digital news is a huge challenge even for wealthy publishing giants in a landscape where the best solutions still have significant gaps and risks. But Atlanta and Georgia media seem especially precarious, with low awareness among publications and a lack of leadership from professional groups and library systems.
The public’s risk of losing this collective memory is only growing as much of Atlanta’s vibrant new journalism is performed by digital-only or digital-mostly media like Atlanta Community Press Collective, Canopy Atlanta, Axios Atlanta and, I daresay, SaportaReport. And even old-school titans like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution are contemplating their digital-first future.
It doesn’t help that archiving is entwined with other issues that Atlanta media, reflecting its town’s traditional mindset, is often ill-motivated to cover in other business fields, let alone itself: historic preservation, questioning corporate power over public information, and workers’ rights. Yet digital news preservation is of prime importance to any journalist who cares that they’re writing not just for clicks but for posterity and those with advocacy perspectives that are often ahead of their times.
Project Q was once one of those digital advocacy pioneers. Debuting in September 2008, it briefly spun off a sister site for Houston’s LGBTQ community and, in its later years, a print version called Q Magazine (later Q ATLus). Rising in the Obama era, Project Q covered a fascinating and historically important cultural period that included the mainstreaming of same-sex marriage, the dawn of modern trans rights advocacy, and such typically Georgian retrograde abuses as the Atlanta Eagle police raid.
As a freelancer for Project Q, I covered such themes and trends as the debut of PrEP, the rise in gay video game characters, problems with hate-crime reporting, and stubborn homophobia in the NFL and its Atlanta Falcons.
Then came the pandemic and founder Matt Hennie’s move to an out-of-state job. Co-publisher Mike Fleming continued the publication while battling cancer. In May 2022, Fleming announced Project Q was “taking a break” and on “hiatus.” It has never returned.
I found out the website was gone in a way that underscores the significance of such archives evaporating: I was looking for an old story about allegations of abuse of trans inmates in state prisons to inform some of my reporting today.
Hennie – now editor-in-chief at Arizona’s Phoenix New Times – and Fleming did not respond to questions about the ultimate fate of Project Q as a business and archive. But Hennie explained the site’s removal.
“The site was taken offline in late April after Mike and I decided that it wasn’t feasible to continue funding web hosting services out of our own pockets, which we had been doing since we stopped posting fresh content to it about a year earlier,” said Hennie in an email. “…Our web hosting service did a site export in April, so we’ve got that export and site archives stored in the cloud. But they aren’t publicly accessible.”
We’ve seen other digital-media losses before here. Creative Loafing, once an alternative news powerhouse, came under new ownership in 2017 oriented toward tech and marketing culture that gutted the staff and rebranded the publication, in part with a new website that killed many stories and broke the links for many more. That still-unrepaired loss gained attention in such media publications as the Columbia Journalism Review.
The 2013 closure of another alternative media bastion, the Boston Phoenix, offers both a counterexample and a cautionary tale about the limits of solutions. Based in a city far more interested in preservation and with more cultural resources, ex-staffers were able to have print editions made available online, as well as a searchable archive of the website, by the Internet Archive (IA), a California-based digital library known for its “Wayback Machine” collection of snapshots of billions of webpages. Print reproduction permission came from Northeastern University, which held a collection donated by the Phoenix’s former publisher. (A version of the original website remains partly alive as well.)
Coming together late in the game, the print archiving is not complete. And the Internet Archive snapshots have limitations, including missing graphics and sometimes pages of articles beyond the first. Dan Kennedy, a former Phoenix writer and editor who worked on the archiving effort and is now a Northeastern journalism professor, tells me that a decade later, there are still hopes of improving the preservation job.
“The Phoenix was a vital part of the Boston media scene for many years,” said Kennedy. “Those of us who were lucky enough to be a part of that are grateful to Northeastern and to the Internet Archive for preserving our work. We all hope that more will be done in the future to complete the collection and to make it easier to use.”
Georgia’s major newspaper archiving effort is already outmoded and has no plans for the digital-only era. Founded in 1953, the Georgia Newspaper Project at the University of Georgia’s University Libraries involves microfilming print editions submitted by various statewide publications – 126, at last count. That’s far from a complete list of Atlanta and Georgia papers, which is only the start of the current problem. Another is that microfilm is essentially a dead medium in the current era, rarely manufactured and hard to obtain, along with the gear for viewing it. And, say, project leaders, they have a whopping 11-year backlog in archiving.
UGA tells me that the Georgia Newspaper Project just decided to end microfilming on June 30, 2024. Instead, it will only accept digital editions of newspapers in PDF format, which began as a pilot program in 2021. In a written statement, the project’s leader said they are “hoping” that all of the current publishers will continue participating.
What about digital-only news sites, which have been around since the late 1990s and are a staple today? The Georgia Newspaper Project remains “currently limited to print publications,” a spokesperson said. However, the UGA libraries are using IA to collect some government websites in a way that could translate to media archiving – if anyone found the resources and willpower to do it. But then there are new challenges in new formats, such as the return of email-driven newsletters like Axios.
On the commercial side are several companies that essentially license news archives for research use, such as Newspapers.com and NewsBank. NewsBank is used for at least part of the archiving by more than 150 Georgia publications, according to Chuck Palsho, the company’s president of media services. They include such heavyweights as the AJC, the Augusta Chronicle, the Savannah Morning News, the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, the Macon Telegraph and the Brunswick News.
NewsBank offers the archiving for free in exchange for selling the licensing to libraries, universities and other research institutions – or even for the publication to sell themselves online or view internally for reporters’ own research. Originating as a microfilm outfit, NewsBank now archives e-editions of print publications and also scrapes websites for stories, photos, videos and other content. Among its mostly-digital customers in metro Atlanta is Decaturish, the Decatur-based news site, where publisher Dan Whisenhunt says it archives all their material.
However, the service has its own challenges and exceptions. NewsBank found it a “real big challenge” to save entire webpages, says Palsho, due to their many dynamic elements that publishers may not fully control technologically or legally. Publishers may also order stories to be deleted for whatever reason – increasingly due to shifting ethics on such subjects as maintaining permanent stories on arrests of people who ended up acquitted. And publishers may not possess the rights to get royalties on the continued use of stories written by non-staff freelancers.
The “Dire State of News Archiving in the Digital Age” was the subject of a 2019 study by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. While outlining several technical challenges, it emphasized a lack of awareness and motivation as a key problem.
“What we found was that the majority of news outlets had not given any thought to even basic strategies for preserving their digital content, and not one was properly saving a holistic record of what it produces,” the study authors said, adding, “Digital-only news organizations had even less awareness than print publications of the importance of preservation.”
Publications surveyed in the study often confused archiving with digital backup and storage in such applications as Google Docs. None of the publications were preserving their social media, such as posts on Twitter or Instagram. IA’s Wayback Machine gave journalists “a dangerous and false sense of security,” the study said because it does not save everything, only occasional snapshots, only in certain formats, and not always matching archival standards. Among practical challenges are capturing corrected versions of stories or other variant versions of a story. (Mark Graham, IA’s director of the Wayback Machine, tells me the service has archived “many” shuttered news sites, but did not specify any in Atlanta or Georgia that may be actively archiving.)
A larger issue ties into the digital era, when many publications have given up their printing presses and now rely on platforms created by non-journalistic and often parasitic tech corporations like Google and Meta. That goes for archiving, too, where the study says “news organizations have handed over their responsibilities as public stewards” to such companies and organizations as IA and Newspapers.com. “The Internet Archive aside, the larger issue is that these companies’ incentives are neither journalistic nor archival and may conflict with both,” says the study.
Behind the lack of interest in the archiving problem, the study said, was often a throwaway attitude that news is about what’s new, not what’s past. The authors suspect the corrosive effect of today’s platforms and “the influence of Silicon Valley startup culture on the journalism profession.”
The study calls for collaboration among publishers and institutions to answer the crucial digital-media questions: “What should be preserved? Who should preserve it?”
In metro Atlanta’s media ecosystem, those questions certainly aren’t being asked enough, let alone answered. Two of the biggest professional groups had no info, with the Atlanta Press Club saying it was not aware of any resources and the Georgia Press Association directing me to the Georgia Newspaper Project.
Among publications I talked to, the level of thought varied widely. An AJC spokesperson directed me to a copyright webpage that is entirely print-focused and says nothing about archiving the AJC.com website, which at one point operated as a semi-autonomous publication and now serves a paper moving closer to digital. As for print archives, it’s a hodgepodge of self-hosted e-editions and back issues on Newspapers.com and NewsBank.
Canopy and Appen Media were among the publishers interested in hearing more about the archiving issue. Canopy, where I previously worked as a contributing editor, is performing pioneering work in citizen journalism of government meetings but has no plan for keeping it publicly accessible in the event of a shutdown or technology change. Mariann Martin, Canopy’s operations and development director, says it’s “certainly something that we need to consider.”
Appen is a 30-year-old independent publisher in the north metro area with newspapers in Alpharetta, Roswell, Dunwoody, Forsyth Johns Creek, Milton and Sandy Springs. The company has “no plan for online stories” being archived, though about 95 percent of them end up in print, says Director of Content & Development Carl Appen. As for print, digital editions back to around 2017 are available on the third-party platform Issuu, Carl Appen says, while earlier digital editions are not yet publicly accessible following some stalled talks with the Milton Historical Society. Like Palsho at NewsBank, Appen says that archiving photos is perhaps the biggest challenge due to file categorizing and other challenges.
“I take file organization, naming conventions and public access very seriously. Ensuring public access to archives is a big reason why,” said Carl Appen, adding, “Would love to hear what other folks are doing well!”
“Our news is all preserved,” said Kaylene Ladinsky, editor and managing publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times. But she would not elaborate on methods and practices.
A classic irony of the media is an industry based on informing the public is often terrible at communicating its own problems, something that is biting us in the digital age. Like most other industries, its professional talk typically focuses on the glories and priorities of its bosses rather than its workers in ways that affect the preservation issue. Some of the issues are well-known, like today’s digital “presses” being owned by heartless corporations thousands of miles away – or their local trainees – rather than by journalists themselves. Others remain undeservedly fringe, such as the structural inequity of journalism being one of the few writing professions – contrast with books, music and Hollywood – where writers typically do not get royalties or residuals for the continued monetization of their work, which is what commercial archiving is.
All of these hammers fall harder on the likes of Project Q, with their small-scale gumption and service to a minority community. For now, the print magazines live on Issuu, and the Wayback Machine has random snapshots, but the rest is in limbo. The fate of its digital archives surely involves agonizing personal and business decisions that must be made alone, but surely we can all offer more support in furthering its original purpose of serving the public. As the Tow Center study warned: “Local, independent, and alternative news sources are especially at risk of not being preserved, threatening to leave critical exclusions in a record that will favor dominant versions of public history.”