Screenwriters: No, back issues of The Smalltown Gazette from the 1930s are not archived online

Screenwriters: No, back issues of The Smalltown Gazette from the 1930s are not archived online December 14, 2011

Via Matt Yglesias I learn that the complete archives of Vogue magazine are now online.

Those who can afford it — the subscription apparently costs $1,575 a year — can access “every single page from every issue dating back to the magazine’s American debut in 1892.”

I mention this in the hopes that TV writers will pay attention and note that this makes Vogue astonishingly exceptional. The complete archives of most publications dating back to 1892 are not archived online. The complete archives of most publications dating back to 1992 are not online.

So if your story involves an eerie plot-point about the very same thing happening decades ago in the 1930s, or a spine-tingling reveal showing a photo of the suspect looking exactly the same in 1903, then your protagonists need to be looking at microfilm in a library, or at physical print issues in the stacks.

This actually helps. Picture your hero scrolling through old articles in the musty, subterranean archives of the old library, lit only by the dim glow of the microfilm machine and a flickering fluorescent bulb down the hallway. That’s bound to be much creepier than having her or him sitting at a comfortable desk somewhere surfing the Web on one of those sweet, cutting-edge MacBooks that seem to be the product-placement computer of choice even for TV characters who could never plausibly afford one.

And also, no, it won’t do to simply suggest that your super-geek sidekick has world-class hacking skills and therefore can access anything online. The world’s greatest hackers still can’t access newspaper archives that do not exist. Willow Rosenberg, Abby Sciuto, Penelope Garcia, Chloe O’Brian, Chloe Sullivan and the Lone Gunmen combined cannot hack their way into accessing something that is not there to be accessed.

I wish those newspaper archives did exist. I wish every local newspaper in the country were busily figuring out how to make their complete archives available online — even if only as .pdf scans. This would be invaluable to their communities, to historians, scholars, researchers and their own journalists.

And on a more personal note, if newspapers were doing this sort of thing, I might still have a job. Unfortunately, newspapers are not adding new personnel to manage the new task of their new online platform. Instead, the rise of the Internet has coincided with a drastic reduction in the number of people working for newspapers.

That means that for the vast majority of newspapers, online archives only go back to about 1994 at the earliest. That is, if they have any online archives at all — Gannett’s linkrot-ridden papers do not, their stories just disappear from the Web after three months. It also means that any story that can be found online was researched and edited by fewer people working far more quickly than those older stories on microfilm in the library, meaning that as a general rule, a newspaper story from 2009 is far less likely to be as reliable, comprehensive, penetrating or accurate as a newspaper story from 1979.

But that’s a larger, separate complaint. Here I just want to remind TV writers that, no, back issues of The Smalltown Gazette from the 1930s are not archived online.

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  • The thing that is likely is that if ANYTHING exists on-line of a smalltown newspaper’s archive, it’s more likely to be the whole thing. Digitizing one small town newspaper’s archive is the sort of task that, once started, is more likely to run to completion (And probably by an unpaid intern), and not be endlessly pre-empted by resources being reallocated.

  • Oh yes, and the “I think I heard a noise so we don’t need one of those pesky warrants to enter” crap.  God, I hate that one.  I would hope that there would be severe consequences for a real cop who tried that, but there never is for the TV cops.

  • P J Evans

    There’s something about looking at microfilm (or a scanned image) of original documents that makes it more of a connection across time than looking at someone’s transcription of it.

  • Anonymous

    The Carnegie library in Ann Arbor has (well, had) an interesting history. It was built attached to the  public high school, and served as a library until the university purchased both buildings and converted them into dorms and such. Recently, UM had the buildings torn down to make room for a new residential and academic complex. But they preserved the facade of the old library, and incorporated architectural details of the old building into the new structures. It was a nice accommodation for the locals who had some attachments to the library and school. I don’t think many people were that sorry to see them go, though – they were pretty run down, and the new complex is very spiffy.

  • Jenny Islander

    Harper’s Bazar is available from the first issue to 1900 free at the HEARTH Project.  So is Good Housekeeping from the first issue to 1950.  There are some gaps in both archives, however.

  • Okay, fine, but it’s not exactly as if it’s hard to solve Batman crimes. There’s really only one person who would use a giant ice cannon mounted on a blimp to rob a bank that probably contains less money than it would take to build a giant ice cannon and buy a blimp. Being a detective in a town when most criminals have outrageously flamboyant MOs that they almost never conceal isn’t that impressive.

    Or . . . could it be . . . why, it’s almost as if the shows’ creators think we’re stupid.

    Nah, I guess it’s just really hard to simulate real life policework like that, without running into issues about pacing. A lot of the shows also like to take real technology that their advisers only kind of understand and portray them as being magic.

  • Anonymous

    Huh. I’ll have to ask my parents about what it was like. They went to the University of Michigan back in the day – its possible they were in the building at some point, when it was the Frieze building.

  • Considering that the legal basis for arrest in a lot of drugs cases boils down to “I smelled a suspicious odor, Your Honor” – the TV shows are sadly not that far off from reality.

  • Dan Audy

    Oh yes, and the “I think I heard a noise so we don’t need one of those
    pesky warrants to enter” crap.  God, I hate that one.  I would hope that
    there would be severe consequences for a real cop who tried that, but
    there never is for the TV cops.

    What annoys me almost as much is on the very rare occasion that the shows acknowledge the incredible illegality that the average TV cop engages with regularity and the suspect is released/evidence excluded they portray it as if the DA or justice system commited a heinous act by doing so not that the cop who broke the law forcing them to do so.  I have to admit that was one of the things I always liked about Law&Order (the original or the new British one, not all the other terrible spinoffs) is that they rarely showed the evilbadguy commiting the crime so when procedural aspects interfered with prosecution it wasn’t as obvious a case of justice not being served as it is in most shows where they magically always get the right person (or briefly suspect another person who is revealed to be innocent when evilbadguy tries to kill them).

  • Anonymous

    I know that at least three writers who’ve worked for the Big Two comics companies have admitted (explicitly or by very overt implication) to pirating back issues for their research because the pirates have generally more complete and better-organized archives than the companies themselves.

  • Tonio

    With Gannett burying blurbs about early-retirement buyouts in stories about management changes, I suspect Fred’s point is really about the feudalism that passes for corporate economics and how it deserves much of the blame for destroying the legacy of small-town journalism.

  • vsm

    The Wire was also good about portraying the cops’ breaking the law as morally ambiguous. The last season was all about good cops taking extreme measures to catch really awful people and said measures blowing up spectacularly on their faces.

  • James Aspnes

    Jurassic Park had an SGI machine running Irix, and the annoying 3D file browser was what SGI actually shipped back in the day.  Like OSX, it was essentially Unix under all the glitz.  So this may be the one exception to the usual Hollywood practice of strictly fictional GUIs.

  • Though Jurassic Park did have “live camera feeds”… which ran in QuickTime windows with little progress slider bars across the bottom.  


    Granted, a few scenes concealed this by putting windows over those progress bars, but some of the most screen-centric shots left them in.  

  • The writers could get away with just not mentioning [contacts]… except that characters have a tendency to get stuck in the woods/taken hostage/kept somewhere where there’s no opportunity to remove contacts for several days, and that’s really uncomfortable. They should at least be rubbing their eyes or asking for saline.

    Not to mention that no character even needs to change a maxi-pad when hostage. I think the closest was the pregnant woman at the beginning of Die Hard. 

  • two people using one keyboard – as the article notes, surely this should be one piece of technology that writers would understand.
    Writers maybe, set designers….?

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    So, so many Carnegie libraries out there…

    IIRC, part of the reason Andrew Carnegie funded so many libraries is because with the 90% income tax rate he was earning, tax-deductible contributions like that were CHEAPER than trying to save more money.

    Of course, our modern Corporate Overlords can’t POSSIBLY do something like that, with the 33% tax rates they’re struggling under.  :-P

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    To be fair to her, Willow has magic. Magic could make stuff appear on the internet.

    If “Infomancy” isn’t already a type of magic in Unknown Armies, it SHOULD be.

  • Cathy W

    By the late ’80s when I was there, the building was…odd. You had this elegant early-20th-century Public Building (and yes, it needed the caps) that had been subjected to a shotgun wedding with some weird turquoise box-with-windows that was probably ultra-modern (and certainly cheap) when it was put up in the ’50s but hadn’t aged well, either physically or aesthetically. The class I had in the building was in the ’50s wing, and, ehh, it was a classroom. For whatever reason (possibly simply “I was 18 and not that interested in architectural design at the time”) it never occurred to me to go exploring in the older part.

    We may note that, as far as I can tell, not a single scrap of the ’50s wing of the building was preserved in the new structure, but (since I have developed an interest in architectural design at some point in the last 20 years) I was pleased that they kept some of the older wing’s facade.

  • Anonymous

    My parents were there in the late 60s/early 70s, so the turquoise box-with-windows would have at least been newer.  Not that that would help a great deal.  If it was the kind of architecture I’m thinking of, about the only good thing you could say about the 50s boxes was that they had windows.

  • lofgren

    One of the things that I really liked about the old B:AS was the way the art directors deliberately obfuscated the time period in which it took place.

    The creators of the animated series originally wanted to set it in 1939, but that idea was nixed by DC. The result was a series with no set time period. It was definitely cool that way, but I still kind of hope to see an ongoing 1939 Batman comic or show someday. Apparently it’s been proposed to DC several times and they keep saying no.

  • This keyboard on kickstarter is pretty Hollywood-cool too – it’s just a clear glass touchscreen.

  • lofgren

    I can tell you exactly why TV writers rely on magical computers. It’s not because they actually believe that computers work that way. It’s economy, pure and simple. They have 43 minutes, max, to commit a crime, introduce the principals, discount the obvious leads, run down at least one dead end, run a couple of their regulars through a monologue, implicate a red herring, throw in a twist, then deliver a pulse-pounding conclusion. Then they have to do the exact same thing next week, and make it all seem a little bit more exciting than it was the last time you saw it. They simply don’t have the time for their characters to go crawling around in musty libraries and city hall basement record offices. On top of that, every set they have to build – or worse, travel to – increases their shooting budget exponentially in both money and time. It’s just not feasible. Of course, this excuse is less viable for movies or for ongoing storielines, but the worst offenses are almost always in service of the episodic plots.

    On top of that, there’s the tedium of it all. The first time a character goes digging for an elaborate backstory or unearths a hidden clue through relentless footwork, it provides suspense and novelty. The twenty-second time, you already know that they’re going to find whatever they need to find, so you might as well just conjure it in fifty seconds of technobabble rather than waste everybody’s time (and insult our intelligence) with non-existent tension. By the time you get to season 6, the writers have to be struggling to come up with an investigative technique that they haven’t already established.

    This is a well-known problem in comic books. Every issue, the Flash needs to run a little faster in order to catch the bad guy. The first time he outruns a bullet, it’s a big deal. Takes maybe a whole page. But the second time if you spend more than a frame on it, you’re just filling space. So he has to outrun a rail gun. Then he has to outrun a laser. Now you have no stories left, so you have to kill the guy off, depower his sidekick and start over with bullets again. The same principle applies to cop shows. Once we’ve established that Garcia can look at anybody’s hospital records with a few mouse clicks, there’s no reason for her not to do it every episode. And if there’s no reason not to do it, there’s no novelty. If there’s no novelty, it’s not worth even talking about except to get us from point A to C.

    So yeah, it’s annoying as hell, and left unchecked it contributes to a rapidly tightening death spiral for a show. But I don’t really see an alternative. So when I see a magic computer in season 4 or 5 I’m perfectly willing to give it a pass like I give the graphic intensive hacking from Hackers a pass because actual hacking is boring as hell.

    But when I see it in the first season of a show, I know it’s not worth watching. (Secret Circle was a recent example that comes to mind, with students’ permanent records from twenty years ago apparently digitized and searchable from any school computer.) You need to earn the right to be that lazy.

  • Fair points, all of them.

    That said I think there’s a line you can straddle between retaining audience credulity and “JUST HELL NO!” levels of half-assing the technological stuff.

    For example, take Antitrust, the movie. Parts of it – Ok, I could deal. Others? Not so much. ( ) Ditto Swordfish ( )

    But the takes-the-whole-fucking-BAKERY level of unbelievabilty pretty much rests with Hackers. Especially when the novelization showed just as much slapdash effort as the movie. (200 MZ processor? Quadra-speed CD-ROM? Jesus, get your frikkin’ terminology right, jackasses*.) You can see the IMDb link here:

    So, technobabble – there’s doing it right and then there’s just making a total dog’s breakfast out of it.


    * The real prize one-liner was in the movie itself: “Check it out, guys! It’s gotta 28.8 BPS modem!”

    *Instant repeated facepalm*

  • lofgren

    But the takes-the-whole-fucking-BAKERY level of unbelievabilty pretty much rests with Hackers. 

    Well I certainly wouldn’t say that I would give EVERYTHING in Hackers a pass.

    That said, I do think there’s a danger of really just splitting hairs on some of this stuff. I actually kind of prefer it when the technobabble is truly incomprehensible, or at the very least so jumbled and inane that even my grandmother knows it’s nonsense. The whole point of technobabble is that you’re not meant to understand it because it’s not actually important. Generally speaking, the movie/tv show/comic book is about the characters and the stories. The computers/radiation/genetic engineering/magic spells are just tools. I know enough about biology that I can often parse technobabble related to that subject better than the average person – enough to know where it goes wrong, or why it’s not even wrong – but you really can’t let that stuff get to you as long as it’s just being used to connect a dot so that the real meat of the story can get back to center stage. I can accept that Superman can fly. I can accept that a 200 MZ processor is a Thing, or that 28.8 BPS is super fast. None of these things really matter, and I can pretty much replace them on the fly with words that actually make sense given my level of understanding of the technology.

    Well-crafted technobabble is a sight to behold, especially in a novel where you can work your way through every word and find that one specific spot where the writer surreptitiously threw in a dot instead of a dash and made the whole thing work in a way that it might not in real life. But that’s really a stylistic choice, like German expressionism or magical realism. It’s not actually key to writing a compelling story.