The newspaper is starting the process of digitizing and uploading to a Google cloud about six million photos and pieces of microfilm currently stored in a third-level basement of its newsroom, known as “the morgue,” so reporters and photo editors can actually use the images for news stories. The archive materials will be generating a lot of their own coverage as well, as the Times is launching a project called “Past Tense,” which will generate two or three stories a week based on the old photos.
Monica Drake, assistant managing editor of the Times, said while the project has been something the paper has wanted to do for years, it’s getting under way at a time when “the Times audience and people more broadly are really interested in history.”
“I think people are looking back and enjoying reconsidering stories about our past and the foundational myths that we’ve told ourselves,” Drake added.
While the digitizing and uploading is expected to take at least a year to complete, probably more, plenty of content is already planned. First will be a package on California and its culture in the 20th century and a piece with international desks that will look at images not seen since the end of World War I tied to Armistice Day. There will also be a series of essays by contributors reacting to a particular photo that’s relevant to them or a subject and work with news desks throughout the Times to include images to go along with historical references in stories.
“What’s most striking so far is that images really have a way of conveying how societal norms have changed, not just in the way women and people of color were regarded, but also the way children were presented, the way we felt portraits had to be very stiff and posed, the way animals are depicted,” Drake said. “Just seeing an image can give you an immediate impression of life at a certain point.”
Elsewhere at the paper, photography, or “visual storytelling” as it tends to be called in journalistic circles, is becoming more of a focus, too. The Times’ Business Day section is being redesigned around more visual and narrative presentation and will be called simply Business, while expanding coverage of technology in the U.S. and international, offering more profiles and new columns about work and professional life and be filled out with content from other verticals, like Smarter Living and The Upshot, which both have more of a culture/trend focus.
The new business section of the upcoming Sunday issue makes good on the visual storytelling aspect, with a full color image of Los Angeles at dusk spread out behind the Hollywood sign to accompany a feature on the entertainment industry a year into #MeToo.