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Tucson Citizen archive back from the dead — 'such as it is'

After vanishing at the beginning of the year, a small fraction of the former online archive of the Tucson Citizen has been restored — but more than 200,000 stories are still unavailable.

The bare-bones remnants of the Citizen's archive vanished from the Internet in January, and corporate staff gave conflicting accounts about whether hundreds of thousands of news stories would ever be accessible again.

Despite the crash of the site, still controlled by the Gannett Inc./Lee Enterprises operation that publishes the Arizona Daily Star, a cache of the Citizen was revived on an independent archive service, the Wayback Machine.

Sometime this month, a small-scale replacement for the archive quietly went back live on tucsoncitizen.com, but it only includes stories dating between the end of January 2009 and the newspaper's closure that May, as well as the blog posts reported by Mark Evans and Anthony Gimino after the presses stopped rolling at the Citizen.

Gimino, the last administrator of Tucson Citizen blogging site that ran after the newspaper was closed, called the latest copy of the archive "no more than 'better than nothing.'"

The version of the Citizen site that had been up for nearly five years included stories published back to 1993 — more than 230,000 of them, it claimed.

Two slightly different versions of the archive appeared then, one with stories that appeared in print between December 1993 and the end of the print paper (tucsoncitizen.com/morgue2), and one with stories that were posted online between March 2006 and shortly after nearly the entire staff was laid off and the newspaper ceased printing in May 2009 (tucsoncitizen.com/morgue).

A notice on the larger archive said it includes more than 230,000 stories. That archive used to have 1,795 pages in its listings of published reports, with about 150 stories on each page. None of the associated photos were included in that archive. Now, that section includes just 29 pages of linked stories.

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The 2006-2009 archive included photos, and used to have 755 pages of listed stories. Now, that section doesn't include any photos, and just 30 pages of linked stories.

The basic Wordpress website was set up by the Citizen's corporate owners in 2014, after the community blogging site that was set up in the wake of the newspaper's closure five years earlier was also shut down. That website disappeared from the Internet sometime before January 17. For months this year, that URL displayed a "Site Not Found" notice from a web hosting company, but even that stopped displaying at some point before mid-August.

Staff at the Arizona Daily Star said in January that all of the data for the website was gone, but the newspaper's publisher said at the time that "we're trying to get it back up."

Star staffers said this week that they had found a partial backup of the Citizen stories on a third-party archive, CommonCrawl.org, this summer. That small slice of the data that was lost was copied back, in order to restore the stories that are now available.

A Star staffer told TucsonSentinel.com that a "forgotten" hard drive recently discovered in storage may hold a great deal of the lost data, and that they were "trying to re-upload as much as possible, but it's going to take time."

After TucsonSentinel.com reported on the archive disappearing in February, the staff of the Wayback Machine, run by the Internet Archive, switched on a mirrored version of the Citizen that had been turned off. Staff there couldn't point to a reason why they had removed public access from those independently captured backups of the site, but indicated that the site had been blocked from inclusion.

Journalists for TucsonSentinel.com as well as AllSportsTucson.com reporter Anthony Gimino — a longtime Citizen veteran — noticed that the website had gone down in January.

"Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, it looks like all data pertaining to that site is gone," a Star staffer told Gimino that month. "Corporate policies prohibit us from providing any further details at this time."

Former Citizen journalists and an industry expert decried the latest shortfall in what they've previously described as the cavalier treatment of the archive, both physical and digital, with one calling the disappearance of the online stories "devastating."

The South Park operation under which the Citizen fell, along with the Arizona Daily Star, is a partnership between massive national newspaper chains Gannett Inc. and Lee Enterprises, with each holding a 50 percent share. Lee is the publisher of the Star, while the Citizen was published by Gannett. A decade after the newspaper ceased publishing, and five years after a community blogging site set up on the Citizen's URL was closed, Gannett still reaps half of the profits from the venture here — about $10 million in total split between the two media chains in the last year that figure was publicly released.

At the time of the newspaper's closing, in May 2009, Gannett executives pledged to allow public access to the archive, and to maintain the online presence of the reporting by the newspaper's staff.

"That would be a tragedy if such an enormous living piece of Tucson history were lost. I tried for months to work out a way for the Arizona Historical Society to preserve the archives, including the vast number of truly historic photos taken by Tucson Citizen photographers for more than 100 years," Jennifer Boice, the final editor of the Citizen after working in that newsroom for 25 years, said when she learned that the archive was gone last winter. "Corporate executives saw the archived material only in terms of value to them and the company. Future generations are infinitely poorer without access to the historical perspective provided by the Tucson Citizen."

Boice welcomed the return of at least part of the archive: "It's important that Tucson's living history is preserved, and the Tucson Citizen was one of the ways to do that."

John D'Orlando, publisher of the Arizona Daily Star, said in January that "It's a lengthy, and odd, story as to why but we're trying to get it back up."

"Hopefully it'll be up and running in the next two weeks," D'Orlando said in an email, but did not provide any details about the archive's status.

Gimino said this week that "I'm a bit surprised Gannett made the effort to restore the URL with a few months of links from the final days of the print edition. But, given that's the extent of the reconstruction, this rises to no more than 'better than nothing.'"

Mark Evans, a former assistant editor for the Citizen newspaper who was the administrator of the blogging site set up after the newspaper was closed, described the online archive in February as "an important record of the people and events of this county dating back to 1993. To not properly maintain it or have something as simple as a backup server shows a cavalier attitude toward the history of this community by Lee and Gannett that I fear is also reflected in their attitude toward telling today's stories."

"The archive cost Gannett or Lee next to nothing. It was a few dozen gigabytes in a server room full of terabytes," he said at the time.

"I wish I could say I'm surprised and shocked, but after watching how those two great papers have been bled for decades, shipping local dollars out of state to fuel the insatiable demand for 20-percent profit margins, it seems rather inevitable that 29 years of news gathering by Citizen journalists would go up in smoke for want of a few hundred bucks for a backup server and a little bit of monthly attention," said Evans, now the chief spokesman for Pima County.

Learning that some of the stories had again been made available, Evans tersely said Friday, "I appreciate the effort, such as it is."

Last winter, staff at Tucson's remaining daily newspaper said that "Tucsoncitizen.com was a Gannett, Inc site. Neither the Star nor its parent company Lee Enterprises hosted it."

Domain registration records show that the tucsoncitizen.com URL is owned by Tucson Newspapers, one of the alternate names for TNI Partners, the combined agency for the Lee/Gannett partnership here. Both tucson.com and azstarnet.com, the websites for the Daily Star, are listed as owned by Tucson Newspapers. Despite the newspaper being published by Lee, both Star websites are run through Gannett nameservers.

The domain registration for the Citizen site was renewed in August, despite there being no website available at that URL.

Plug pulled previously

The Citizen's website has had information lost several times since the paper's newsroom was shut down. Gannett closed the Citizen newspaper in May 2009, but kept on a shoestring staff who administered an open-to-all blogging site to keep the U.S. Justice Department off the company's back.

When the Citizen newspaper was publishing, the partnership was supervised by the Justice Department under a joint operating agreement — an exemption from antitrust laws allowed by the Newspaper Preservation Act.

The Citizen's press made its final run for the Saturday, May 16, 2009, edition. The paper printed its first page for Saturday, Oct. 15, 1870.

Evans and Gimino have both said the Citizen received little support during its existence as a blogging website. After the newspaper closed, few resources were put toward maintaining the Citizen's digital and physical archives.

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The system that handled the newspaper's posted archive was switched over to another in 2010, but links between photos and stories were lost, as was an archive of news videos, due to a power surge.

From 2009 to early 2014, the Citizen hosted blogs by dozens of local writers. That content was all removed from the archive in January 2014, five years after Gannett ended a probe by the Justice Department by agreeing to maintain an alternate "editorial voice" in the community.

From 2014 until this January, the site existed as a text-centric repository of thousands of news reports published in the Citizen from 1993 through the day of the last print run.

Leading up to the 2009 shutdown of the newspaper, Gannett went through the motions of putting the Citizen up for sale, but declined at least two offers to purchase the paper. The company justified its closing of the paper to the Justice Department by claiming it would be more profitable to remain a partner in the Star portion of the operation, without the expense of staffing a newsroom and printing and distributing a paper. The company said in a 2009 federal court filing that it had licensed the archive for more money than the highest bid it received for the paper. The licensee was only disclosed in a document that remains sealed, but sources within the combined Lee/Gannett operation have said they suspect that Gannett licensed the Citizen archive to TNI Partners — with the Tucson operation essentially paying itself to make outside bids appear too low.

The Star has frequently published photo retrospectives that rely heavily on Citizen photos from the 1960s, early '70s, and decades before. The Citizen had a much more extensive photo archive preserved in its library.

Gannett and Lee have followed a practice of splitting "all available cash" from the Tucson operation between the two companies on a weekly basis.

The Star has shut down its press in Tucson — now printing at the Arizona Republic's plant 140 miles away in northern Phoenix — and has put its building up for sale. The newsroom of 50-60 people, and total staff of 160 or so, no longer requires a plant of more than 200,000 square feet.

'Digital dark age'

"The demise of the Tucson Citizen web archive could be the poster child for the difficulties we face when trying to archive web-based news," said Edward McCain, an industry expert on preserving digital journalism.

"The days of libraries collecting papers and keeping them in bound volumes are long gone, but we have not developed the laws and technology needed to keep digital content from disappearing," said McCain, head of the Journalism Digital News Archive at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, and a staff photographer for the Citizen in the 1980s.

"It is sad to see the 'first rough draft of history' from Southern Arizona disappearing, but unless we take this urgent situation seriously, we stand to lose much more of the history of the early 21st century — a kind of 'digital dark age,'" McCain said.

Editor’s note: Dylan Smith was the online editor of the Tucson Citizen through the shutdown of the newspaper in May 2009.


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photo illustration by Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

The Tucson Citizen website as it appeared for months this year, superimposed over a list of stories posted from its final print edition, May 16, 2009.

Abandoned Citizen newsroom briefly bustled as film set

The long-empty Tucson Citizen newsroom was used as a set for the film "Spiked" during the first week of September.

The movie, about a feud between a newspaper owner and police chief after the murder of a migrant worker in a southwestern border town, is due for release in 2020.

The movie will star Aidan Quinn ("Benny & Joon," "Weeds," "Elementary," along with Danay Garcia ("Fear the Walking Dead") and Carlos Gomez ("Queen of the South," "Madam Secretary," "Law & Order True Crime").