Media owners are missing a golden opportunity to mine their archives

The most interesting element of the Sunday Times' redesign is not what's new but what's old.

Amid the hoo-ha over the weekend about new fonts and picture bylines, as a subscriber I was bombarded with digital messages informing me that I could read some of the late AA Gill’s brilliant travelogues, freshly curated.

The much-missed journalist filed extraordinarily evocative dispatches from around the world, especially from Africa, during his career on the paper.

And those Tweeted prompts made me wonder whether the Sunday Times' digital team had accidentally hit upon a brilliant use of resources to make money to reinvest in journalism.

In truth, this is not the first time AA Gill’s work has been resurrected.

A few weeks back, in prime position on pages eight and nine, the newspaper printed a three-year-old interview of a dead person written by a dead person.

Admittedly, it was a quite brilliant piece of journalism by Gill on his friend Lord Snowdon, but even so it is highly unusual to give such prominence in a newspaper (if we define "news" as of the moment) to a piece lifted straight from the cuts library.

However, the most valuable resource a publishing house owns is not a superfast internet connection to Google and all the fake news that lies therein, but that library. In the days before digitisation, they were the most remarkable rooms, musty and bustling, staffed by a dedicated team.

Every event and person you can imagine, with folders precisely annotated, bursting with priceless information, images, reminiscences, legal notices and, crucially, facts.

So why must all of that material, now digitised, remain in the hands of a tiny few who only ever access it when they need to bulk out their "new" articles in a hurry?

What if that material was treated like an active newsroom, constantly plundered to chime with what’s happening in the world? The old making the new more relevant, adding context, providing more reason to stay on a website and perhaps persuading people to part with a little more cash.

In fact, death is a wonderful opportunity to make use of the past. This year has already proved that 2016 was not an aberration in terms of famous people dying.

If we assume the age of celebrity began in the 1950s as entertainment, sport and business were brought closer to the masses, then those leading lights will be in their 80s now. Mourning will – in fact it already has – become highly newsworthy.

So instead of obituaries being swiftly churned out by hacks, why not republish seminal interviews in precisely the way the Sunday Times did with Gill and Snowdon? And then charge a premium for it. Surely Chuck Berry’s recent passing would have been better served by real interviews rather than cobbled together cuts jobs.

In an age before overly-precious celebrities and their over-zealous army of PRs effectively neutered a journalist’s ability to write an honest, warts-and-all profile, surely there’s a market in reading some pearls from the past.

In the UK alone 30 years ago, Terry Waite was kidnapped, cities were blighted by race riots, the Spycatcher scandal kicked off, the Acid House rave scene began, Prince Edward flounced out of the Royal Marines, the IRA murdered eleven people in Enniskillen, the Kings Cross fire killed 31 and relations between England and Pakistan were forever soured after cricket captain Mike Gatting called the umpire a cheat.

All of them accompanied by the most brilliant eyewitness accounts that will read just as powerfully today. And, in some way, serve as a reminder about what makes us who we are.

Some publishers do offer such historical treasures. The New York Times’ Time Machine website contains every issue from 1851 to 1980 and its dedicated Twitter feed highlights articles every day. They are freely available, perhaps because they are simply facsimile copies of the original papers rather than intelligently-curated thematic material.

The New Yorker also has a web-based, paid-for archive dating back to 2007. Editor David Renick recently said: "When something happens in the world that has a resonance, we can go to the archives and retrieve something rich."

The Guardian, too, boasts of articles on its internet site from as far back as 1791 but it doesn’t make effective us of them, the responsibility to find this material lies with the reader rather than the source provider.

Amid our technological rush for success, we’re forgetting what’s really valuable.

Perhaps, after all, old really is gold and instead of looking to the future to find profits we should be glancing to the past.

Grant Feller is director of GF Media. He is a former journalist who worked as an executive at the Daily Mail, Daily Express and London Evening Standard.

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