The value of old newspapers

This week Doug asked me about the value of historic newspaper. Many people save them, of course: the newspapers that first gave the news that President Kennedy was shot, or that astronauts had walked on the moon, or that a war had begun or ended. I was sorry to have to tell Doug that the answer to his question is “absolutely no value at all.” That statement is more than a personal opinion; it is the word of a trained and certified archivist.

Why do old newspapers have no value? Let me count the ways:

  1. They printed so many of them. Most have disappeared into garbage cans, recycling bins, bird cages, and the like, but many copies of old newspapers remain stored in closets, attics, and basements. At least a bicentennial quarter is still worth twenty-five cents, but those quarters have not increased in value because so many were made. Even in the year 2076, a bicentennial quarter will probably be worth no more than twenty-five cents, because so many were minted.
  2. But newspapers diminish in value. If you tried to increase the value of a newspaper by putting it under glass and putting a frame around it, someone else might buy it from you, but probably only for the value of the frame. The buyer would most likely throw the newspaper away.
  3. For obvious reasons, newspapers are printed on low value paper. Over time, the acidic quality of the paper reacts to air, sunlight, temperature changes, humidity changes, and other factors. This is why newspapers become yellow and brittle over time. Their deterioration can be slowed by keeping them safe from sunlight and in a stable environment (unchanging temperature and humidity). Most of our attics and closets and basements are nowhere close to stable. In fact, it is very expensive to build a room that remains constant in temperature and humidity.
  4. As they deteriorate, newspapers release their acid onto adjoining surfaces, causing them also to darken and become more brittle. They can damage other papers which have more value, such as handwritten notes and letters. As an archivist, I always separate newspapers and newspaper clippings from other collections of paper. My first inclination is to discard the newspaper or clipping. I might, however, keep a set of clippings as an indication of the personal interest of the person who took the trouble to cut articles from newspapers. Especially if the clippings have underlines or handwritten notes, they are worth saving—not for financial value, but only for historic information about a person.
  5. Newspaper publishers and libraries keep copies of newspapers. To save storage space, they often preserve the images digitally or—more old-school—on microfilm. Some companies even make copies of old newspapers available through the internet. Because these images are readily available, no value remains in the original copy of a newspaper.

What should you do, then, with historic newspapers that you or your parents or grandparents have saved? My advice is to discard them. Use the storage space for more valuable items. Reduce your risk of fire, of insect infestation, and of damaging other papers you are saving. Get rid of excess baggage before you die, so that your family doesn’t have to wonder what to do with all your old trash.

If the newspaper has some sentimental value for you—maybe it is the front page from the day you were born—then take a picture of the paper before you discard it. Save that picture at least three different places: on your camera, on a desktop or laptop computer, on a portable memory, as an email attachment, or on the Cloud. Always save a digital image or document more than one place. From time to time you may wish to check your images; if one copy has been lost or damaged, you can replace it from one of your other copies.

But get rid of your discolored, crumbling, smelly, bulky newspapers. You will be glad you did. J.

The Times: they are a-changin’

 

Sixteen years ago (plus a few weeks), my family and I moved into the house where we live today. I arrived alone one Sunday—the others were staying with friends until the truck arrived with our stuff. I had a sleeping bag, a coffee maker, and a few other things I would need. I ran out to the store and bought I few things I had forgotten I would need—including a coffee mug—and made myself at home in the nearly empty house.

Early in the morning, when I was half-asleep and half-awake—for who can sleep soundly in new surroundings?—I heard a car stop outside the house. Somebody threw something at the house and then drove away. I wondered about that event as I drowsed, but when I was awake and dressed, I found a copy of the local newspaper lying on the front steps.

That morning, I phoned the circulation number of that newspaper, told them that the previous owners had moved, but I wanted to receive the daily newspaper. I gave them a credit card number, and for the past sixteen years I have had a newspaper to read each morning. There were a few days when delivery failed to happen because of ice and snow, but otherwise I’ve been able to eat breakfast and sip my coffee and read the world news, national news, local news, sports items, human interest items, comics, and opinion pieces at my leisure.

The newspaper is a mild luxury—rates rose to the point that I’ve been paying roughly a dollar a day to receive the news printed on paper. But I’ve read newspapers ever since I was a little boy and my father brought the afternoon paper home each day and picked up two different Sunday papers each week. When I was in college, my friends and I split the cost of a subscription and shared the daily paper. Rarely have I been without a newspaper to read each morning—generally only on vacations, and even then I sometimes was able to get access to a newspaper.

This morning, a note was included with my morning paper. The carrier is no longer going to deliver to some subscribers on her route. I assume that, since I received the note, I am one of the subscribers who will be dropped.

The newspaper is making a transition to becoming purely electronic and digital. The editors expect to keep charging a dollar a day for people to read the daily news on their phones and other devices. I am not going to be one of those digital readers. I already pay for an internet connection, and I can get news and sports information and even comics for no additional charge online. The newspaper office is closed today, but tomorrow I am phoning circulation, canceling my subscription, and asking for a refund of any outstanding balance.

For years the decline of the newspaper has been predicted, announced, and considered. The newspaper I’ve received for the last sixteen years is imitating many more famous newspapers in making this transition to a digital format. Many other newspapers have gone out of business. I suspect this newspaper will go out of business soon; I don’t think many of their loyal readers are going to pay a dollar a day for information already available online.

Change happens, whether we like it or not. I’m not really complaining—after all, I am sharing this news in a digital format. But I will miss that morning read, and getting the news off a computer screen will not be the same. It may take a while for me to adjust to this new way of life. J.