The New York Times is digitizing its photo archives, with a Google assist

One of the points of The New York Times’ 2014 Innovation Report was that the paper had missed an opportunity to use its archived content. The Times is trying to correct that, digitizing its physical archive of around 6 million photos dating back as far as its beginnings in the mid-1800s.

Archived material is a big advantage that legacy publishers have over newer competitors and can be redistributed to increase traffic, packaged and sold in the form of back issues and photos and used to build advertising, as publishers including The Atlantic and The Economist have done.

The Times didn’t rule out using the archive for commercial purposes down the road, but said for now, the digital photo archive’s use is limited to the newsroom, which will use it to inform news coverage and resurface images that have relevance today.

“We have covered the world for such a long time we just have this vast store of information,” said Monica Drake, assistant managing editor at the Times. “The immediate goal is to take advantage of all this material and information we’ve gathered for so long and bring it back to life. We want The New York Times to be a place people go if they want to know what was happening a century ago or when was the first time an attorney general stepped down.”

The Times created a storytelling team led by Veronica Chambers that will publish photos from the archives and support other desks with archival photos. The first results of this will be a photo essay showing California’s development that will be published this weekend.

The Innovation Report and reports like this one by the Times about black history helped show the value of the photo archives, said Drake.

“We realized what a treasure we have and that they resonate with a digital audience,” she said.

The problem was that all these photos have been stored in a morgue in folders that had to be manually sifted through. They often are categorized in ways that made sense at the time but no longer do, Drake said.

“There was a zoot folder,” she said. “Apparently at some point someone said, ‘We shoot this so much, we need to create a folder.’”

Manually tagging the photos in an archive would take a lot of work, so the Times put it off. The Times hired a 10-person team to scan and upload the photos. It’s using Google to store photos in the cloud and make it easier to search the scanned photos by converting hand-written captions to text. The work started this summer and is expected to take a year or more to complete.

The arrangement is part of the Times’ relationship with Google as a Google Cloud customer. Both the Times and Google are announcing the archiving work Nov. 9. The announcement is unrelated to the Google News Initiative Cloud program to help small- to medium-sized media companies with tasks including digitizing photo archives.

Image via The New York Times.

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