Future-Proofing News Apps

    by Meredith Broussard
    April 23, 2014
    Photo by Michael Randall and used here with Creative Commons license.
    IBM NORC, 1954. Courtesy of Columbia University Computing History

    IBM NORC, 1954. Courtesy of Columbia University Computing History

    Let’s say that you’re a historian in 2064 and you want to look at the New York Times for a view of how journalists represented celebrity fashion in the early 2000s. You could pull images of the pages of newsprint that hold Oscar photos, but what you’d really want is to see the Times’ 2014 Red Carpet Project news app that shows 19 years of Oscar ensembles. Will you be able to view the app as 2014 viewers saw it?

    "One of the central problems facing preservationists in the future will be how to run old, obsolete software and documents on new systems." -Richard Rinehart

    If today’s news developers figure out future-proofing, you should be able to. A small but growing set of developers and archivists is beginning to think about how to preserve today’s news apps for future generations.


    The conversation began in September 2013 when Matt Waite wrote “Kill All Your Darlings” (a piece about end-of-life app issues) on Source, and it continued with an all-day designathon in Washington, D.C. at the Newseum in early March. The designathon was a reminder of how powerful it is to have people from different disciplines together in the same room. From the librarians and archivists who came to the event, I learned that news developers don’t have to invent digital preservation methods from scratch — thankfully, smart minds have been working for years to find ways to preserve complex digital projects.

    While there aren’t yet good answers for how exactly to future-proof, we can draw on thinking from related disciplines as a starting point. Here are three spots to start the hunt for more information:

    Art worlds

    In the art world, Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart are the go-to thinkers regarding digital preservation for digital art. Rinehart’s 2002 paper “Preserving the Rhizome ArtBase” lays out the issues comprehensively and in a manner laypeople can understand. As an example, here’s Rinehart on the mechanics of preservation:


    One of the central problems facing preservationists in the future will be how to run old, obsolete software and documents on new systems. As a strategy for addressing this problem, emulation is especially suited to works of digital media art. Hardware emulation involves writing a new piece of software for a future computer that causes that computer to mimic, or emulate, all of the hardware behavior of an earlier computer. For instance, if one wanted to run a piece of software from 1999 (say a work from the ArtBase) on a computer in 2050, then one would write a piece of software called an “emulator” which would cause that 2050-era computer to appear to all software as if it were an computer from 1999. Once this emulation software was in place, one could run the original software from 1999, including the operating system, the application program and all the document files.

    It makes a lot of sense that artists are years ahead of journalists in thinking about digital archiving methods. Artists are accustomed to maintaining their own archives, whereas journalists are used to LexisNexis or librarians doing the archiving for us. For a fun afternoon project, look through the projects in MOMA’s 2008 “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition and see if you can spot where these contemporary art projects and today’s news apps draw from the same well of visual influences. You may also spot a classic news app, Adrian Holovaty’s ChicagoCrime.org, in the exhibition.

    Computer history

    From a Sikorsky Aircraft advertisement in Communications of the ACM, Vol.11 No.11, November 1968. Courtesy of Columbia University Computing History.

    From a Sikorsky Aircraft advertisement in Communications of the ACM, Vol.11 No.11, November 1968. Courtesy of Columbia University Computing History.

    Looking at the photos of computer history at the Columbia University Computing History site, it’s easy to see how far we’ve come in only 60 or so years. Hardware gets out of date quickly: My parents used to tell me about when they used punch cards in computers during graduate school, and they had to schedule time on an enormous shared mainframe. Today my son learns object-oriented programming in second grade on an exponentially more powerful (and much cheaper) machine. That is an enormous technological and social leap, and understanding that shift will undoubtedly be important to future historians. Burton Grad of the Software History Center wrote of this likelihood in 2003: “Many of us in the software business believe that by studying the systems and applications software produced over the past 50 years, historians can gain special insight into the economic, political, and social changes that have modified our world and led to the dramatic increase in globalization and democracy.” It’s worth thinking about news apps in the context of journalism history, and recognizing that we probably want to preserve them as representative technological artifacts of this moment in time.

    Once we’ve established that we need to preserve apps, a few questions arise. What are news apps, exactly? News apps are original pieces of software, so which parts of the software do we need to preserve? What about interdependencies in the code: For example, if an app relies on Facebook authentication, how can we make it work in the future when Facebook is different or gone? The answers to these questions are still evolving, and they will likely require news developers to standardize a bit more than they do now. ProPublica’s Scott Klein and NPR’s Tyler Fisher wrote on the Knight Lab blog about how they grappled with these issues at the OpenNews designathon: “Our goal was to define the components of a news app to better facilitate the conversation around what is worth preserving, what needs to be virtualized, and what it might take to archive one.” Klein and Fisher are trying to develop a conceptual model for news apps that draws from the Open Systems Interconnection model, which was developed by the ISO international standards-setting organization. Standards are as crucial to software development as they are to industrial production. If electrical plugs were not a standard size, we would never be able to plug in an appliance in any socket. We can look at an HTML page on any browser anywhere in the world because HTML is standardized.

    Game dev

    Physical artifacts are a topic of debate among video game preservationists. For example: Is the plastic Atari joystick essential to the experience of playing old-time 1980s Frogger? Some video game purists might argue that the joystick is crucial; others say that merely seeing the cheerful frog rendered in giant pixels (and playing him to his inevitable demise in the perilous alligator-infested waters) is enough to know what it was like to play this early video game. The point is, some part of the user experience has to do with the physical interface (in this case the unique video game hardware), and it is important to think about these physical objects when we sunset technology. For a news developer, a question might be: If a news app has a unique mobile interface, could it important to preserve a mobile device with which to view it?

    The game dev world has thought extensively about joystick issues, and also about which games should be preserved. An excellent summary of game preservation issues can be found in Preserving Virtual Worlds, a project conducted with the support of the Library of Congress’ National Digital Information Infrastructure for Preservation Program. A few iconic games, such as Mystery House and DOOM, have been carefully preserved through collaborative effort; another collaboration to watch is the Internet Archive’s work with the IGDA’s Preservation SIG and the Stanford University project How They Got Game. That project collects video playthroughs of games, the idea being that even if the games don’t survive, the video might. One takeaway idea for the news dev world: Let’s think about which news apps are iconic, and test our preservation strategies with those first.

    Want to read more about strategies for archiving software projects? Have a source to share? Check out the #apparchive hashtag on Twitter or read and contribute to the app archive collaborative bibliography on Zotero.

    Meredith Broussard is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism at Temple University. A former software developer, she teaches courses in data journalism and entrepreneurial journalism. Follow her on Twitter @merbroussard.

    Tagged: apps internet archive journalism news apps news archives npr propublica technology

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