Time.com opens its ‘Vault’
Is 2014 the year of the legacy media archive?
In May, The Nation launched a blog called “Back Issues” that highlights selections from its 149 years of weekly publication. In July, The New Yorker began publishing, on a weekly basis at no charge to readers, “collections” of stories from its archives grouped around a theme. In August, The New York Times introduced a new search function to its interactive digital archive, the TimesMachine, and a Twitter account, @NYTArchives, to draw readers in. And in September, Time rolled out a history vertical on its website that celebrates historical anniversaries and contextualizes breaking news with quotes from and links to the magazine stories that originally appeared in print.
Today, Time is building on that vertical with the launch of "The Vault," an online archive offering subscribers digital replicas of every magazine issue since its founding in 1923.
The archive, a project that began last year as a collaboration between editors, developers and business staff, was designed to give readers an immersive experience, Time assistant managing editor Samuel Jacobs said. Users can choose to read magazines stories as HTML text, but they're encouraged to browse issues by mimicking the experience of reading a magazine, viewing the images of their covers, and zooming in and out of PDF pages with photos, graphics and ads. Researchers can use the archive's search functionality to pinpoint their subjects of interest, and casual browsers can discover content by year.
The new archive marks a pivot in Time's digital strategy. The site has been focused on growing its traffic over the last year—in September, it was up 43 percent to 50 million unique monthly visitors, up from 35 million in September 2013—according to internal measurements provided by the company. “A big priority for us this year is to not only continue to grow that audience... but also to increase the amount of time that people spend on the site,” Jacobs said.
Time does not currently sell ads based on engagement time, a magazine spokesperson told Capital, but it is trying to “convert visitors into paid subscribers,” as per a job posting detailing the responsibilities of Time’s then-future archive editor.
As is the case with The Nation, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, Time’s digital viewer for past issues is accessible only to those who pay for a subscription. On Time.com, the channel from visitor to subscriber is the history vertical overseen by archive editor Lily Rothman, who was promoted to the position in September.
“She's like this incredible radio D.J.,” Jacobs said. “You get to listen for free to all the great stuff she pulls out, but if you actually want to experience the whole, to get the whole album or whatever, you have to pay a little and you can spend the whole day with the collection.”
Rothman frames her role as a curator in more academic terms. “Students of history know that it's important to use primary sources and the material in our archives is just that—it's the historical record written at the time that it was happening.” When a sweatshirt with markings that resembled blood, on sale at Urban Outfitters, caused outrage for its assumed reference to the May 4, 1970 Kent State shootings that left four students dead amid anti-Vietnam War protests, Rothman wrote an explanatory post quoting and linking to a contemporary Time report.
Of Rothman’s post, former Time deputy managing editor Adi Ignatius, now the editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review, said, “It's click-y and it's also deep, and that seems like a really smart way to do things.”
So should we think of the archives as being legacy media’s answer to the explainer sites of new media, providing deep context to the shallow news cycle in a user-friendly way? The authors of the New York Times innovation report that was leaked earlier this year noted that the newspaper’s “rich archive offers one of [its] clearest advantages over new competitors.” That includes Vox, which aims to be “as good at explaining the world as it is reporting it,” founder Ezra Klein wrote in its mission statement.
“If you think about it, we've been in the writing business for 90 years, and so...Vox doesn't have the material that we have,” Jacobs said. “If something pops up in the news around [the riots in] Ferguson," which erupted after an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a police officer, "and you want to know how it ties to the civil rights movement, we have the reporting, we have the first take of the stories that were written throughout the civil rights movement or any other important period in the 20th century. I mean we really have the chronicle of the American century in our archives, and so we are able to use it to entertain and to inform and to help explain news.”
"At a moment when so much of the media moves so quickly and there's so much sensationalism ... a sense of integrating some of those archives in our work gives people a broader sense of not only their country but how to think about some of the central issues of our time," said Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, which introduced its digital archives more than a decade ago.
"A clever use of archives is kind of an explainer 2.0, or an explainer on historical steroids," she added.
"While I'm not opposed to explainers, I think that they, too, are very much rooted in what happened then minutes ago, and I think the ability to use archives gives explainers a new meaning and something we're trying to do with our archive blog and in other ways," such as e-book compilations of archived Nation articles.