Picture: NYT archives

The New York Times looks to the last 100 years of history to produce stories of modern relevance.

In November 2018, NYT announced it is using Google Cloud technology to digitise its six-million image archive, known as ‘The Morgue’.

From physical cabinets to Google Cloud Storage, the publication now uses the digitised historic photos as part of an image-orientated body of coverage called Past Tense. It looks to breathe new life into the images, enabling journalists to revisit history and retell the stories in new ways.

"We didn’t anticipate the amount of nostalgia from looking at those images," said assistant managing editor, NYT, Monica Drake.

"I did think we were probably going to be quite photo-specific, but it turns out once you start digitising archives, we saw common themes and collections. Instead of drilling down into one image, we’ve used those photos to tell broader stories."

The photographs need to be scanned one-by-one, front and back. The front captures a particular moment in time, but the backs are stamped with key markers to its publication date, captions and its place in The Morgue.

All of this information is then made into searchable items and keywords in an internal Google Cloud Vision API. While it is still a working process, the publisher has wasted no time in putting the images to use with the first story on the changing state of California.

So when the NYT writes about Apple’s new $1billion campus in Texas, Drake said it is then perfect for Past Tense to do a retrospective piece on its origins, facilitated by the Google Cloud technology.

"It was a cultural moment that we ended up collecting images for. It is important for us to keep a record of the original folders they were kept in just as a way of retaining those cultural markers.

"We’ve always been quite interested in looking at our history because we’re such an old news organisation. We have robust archives, not just typography, but actual print pages, so this is a continuation of something we have been doing for a number of years," she said.

She looks to a piece on American feminist and social political activist Gloria Steinem, as a key example of its capacity to retell stories differently with a modern lens.

"We try to exhume history which we feel like we haven’t examined fully the first time around," she said.

"We quickly noticed that the photos we have of Steinem in particular of that era were with women of colour and black women. So we found a woman (Rebecca Carroll) to write the story who knew Gloria but we also just asked her how she felt when she saw those images.

"That piece was an essay reflecting on that. When we first run that story, that’s something we probably wouldn’t have commented on. We didn’t really think about these ideas of gender and inclusive feminist movements then, but it’s something we look back on now."

Other stories, Drake explained, do not need to be as relevant. She suggested that engagement has also been helped by serving as an escape from modern coverage, adding that the images remind the reader of an idealised time in history — but she has plenty of other stories in mind looking forward.

"We will end up covering stories that are inspired by the current political climate and by the idea that we are reckoning with our identity and immigration," said Drake.

"We will look at what has already been digitised, search terms for word that we have written to describe people and neighbourhoods — that would be a first step. Then I think we would look at the card catalogue that we have largely digitised and figure what other keywords or folders might contain the things we would look at, so we can figure out the images in hard copy form."

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