Why Isn’t Local News More Open?

As a librarian at Penn State University, my job centers on helping users—students, faculty, and community members—find the information they need.  Focusing on this important task for over fifteen years has given me a valuable perspective on how information is created, published, and made available.  To a librarian, there’s nothing more exciting than an information challenge—helping someone find the newspaper articles or the books they need to dig deeper into a research area.  During the recent Bloomsburg flood, my skills as a librarian were put to the test.  I read about the Bloomsburg Press Enterprise’s paywall—re-erected after five days of open access to the online version of the newspaper.  I heard the frustration of Bloomsburg natives who, with the paywall back up, could not share online stories of the flood that had impacted their hometown.  This, of course, impacted wider awareness (and relief assistance) for flooding victims.  I went to work looking for ways to find, read, and share Bloomsburg news.  Ultimately, I realized that the Bloomsburg Press Enterprise is, unfortunately, an information source that is entirely closed online—not just to those looking for free daily content, but to researchers looking for historical information on the floods that have relentlessly plagued this small Pennsylvania community.  What a disheartening discovery for a librarian to make.

The lack of Bloomsburg news also runs to public and academic libraries and paid, subscription news databases.  While Access World News (a subscription database for local newspapers) provides access to many Pennsylvania newspapers, the Bloomsburg Press Enterprise is not one.  A search in the CAT, Penn State’s library catalog, turns up nothing as well.  A search of the Bloomsburg Public Library catalog also turned up nothing (other than a print subscription).  Finally, a search of the Bloomsburg University catalog turns up an (old) resource–a project to scan backfiles of the Bloomsburg Daily—an early predecessor of the Press Enterprise (and of this online paper itself!), and a record that indicates that the University has access to backfiles of the Press Enterprise on microfilm.  A follow-up with the staff at the Bloomsburg University Library confirmed that they are archiving issues of the Press-Enterprise, but do not have any access to a searchable database of Press-Enterprise articles.

This means that a researcher studying the recent Bloomsburg flood (and wanting access to local news coverage) would have to travel to Bloomsburg University to access the articles.  It’s a similar story for any other news events occurring in Bloomsburg, including the 1972 flood.  NewsBank and ProQuest, subscription database providers, frequently reach out to small newspapers to index and make searchable their back issues.  Has the Press Enterprise been approached by one or more of these database providers?  Almost certainly.  I’m sure that their motivation for keeping such tight control over their archives is tied to retaining their profits.  But why not allow companies to pay them for access to their backfiles so that researchers—those studying the floods from many different angles or any of the other news occurrences in Bloomsburg—could benefit and create new research from their extensive reporting and historical coverage?  This is a question that I can’t answer, because as a librarian, access to information is always my primary hope.  It is sad to see an information provider shut their doors on the researchers of today and tomorrow.