Inside the top drawer of a wooden filing cabinet in my parents’ house, there is a stack of old newspapers that contain nearly every word I’ve ever written in print. It is an archaeological dig into my career — a history of Emily Siner, journalist, in reverse-chronological order.
At the top, carelessly strewn, are articles written for the Champaign News-Gazette in college. Below that are stories I wrote during my internship at a paper in my hometown, then copies of the alt-weekly magazine I worked for in college, and finally, editions of the Homewood-Flossmoor High School Voyager.
At the very bottom, preserved by the weight of the papers above it, is the oldest surviving evidence of my writing in print: an issue of The Voyager from Dec. 1, 2006. I was a new features writer, and I wrote about how Smart cars were being produced in America for the first time. Why this story was feature-worthy for the student body of H-F High School was not made clear in the article. I did, however, interview a new classmate of mine who later became a good friend. Our friendship outlasted the purpose of that article.
But what will likely outlast both is the physical piece of paper on which the purposeless article is written.
Consider: It has sat there dormant in a filing cabinet for the last 10 years, and it will sit there probably until someone bothers to move the cabinet, which could be never. And even though I never need to refer to that article again, I find its presence surprisingly comforting.
When so much of your work exists in the digital realm, there is a disconcerting lack of stability. The newspaper you interned at changes owners, so none of your old articles are online anymore; the alt-weekly magazine overhauls its website and, oddly, about two-thirds (but not all) of your stories are lost. (Why were one-third of them spared, you wonder? You can discern no logical pattern.)
Although this hasn’t yet happened to me with my radio work, the likelihood of losing it is even higher. It’s not just that stories disappear off the internet — audio formats also change. I can actually access many stories online that Nashville Public Radio produced in the early 2000s, but my computer won’t play them. One day, surely, MP3s will become irrelevant too.
But saving files takes space. Updating file formats takes time. So as I begin to back up my recent work from the past few years, I am faced with the question that confronts any creator of anything: How do you decide what to save?
A journalism professor once told me this applicable adage: You don’t write anything worth saving in the first decade of your career.
I asked him later if high school newspaper reporting counts as part of one’s career. I was eager to get to the stage where I started writing worthy things.
He told me he didn’t think so.
But let’s say, as a mental exercise, that high school does count, which means I just passed the 10-year mark a few days ago. It’s true that most of the stories I’ve written in the past decade have been largely insignificant, and losing them is equally so.
Even as I embark upon the Decade When I Finally Start Writing Good Things, I don’t see this changing much. A journalist’s career is filled with insignificant stories — short pieces that matter for 24 hours, long pieces that you know are mediocre. Sometimes you remember your truly great pieces (even in the first decade of your career!), but often the gems are small and easy to miss — a daily news story that includes a remarkable interview, or a spot where you experimented with sound in a really cool way.
What I really need to do is listen through every radio story I’ve done, read through every surviving online article, and decide whether to save each one. Then I’ll let the rest go. They can dissolve into the ether when their time comes.
Perhaps I should stop romanticizing the print era, because it’s not like physical paper is so great either.
A few years ago, I tried to track down a copy of a particular edition of the Decatur Herald & Review as a gift for my boyfriend at the time. In the mid-90s, he had clipped a photo of his dad and kept it in his childhood bedroom until, 15 years later, the house burned down.
Determined to find a replacement, I spent hours poring through old articles on newspaper archive websites. I finally figured out which story accompanied the photo and tracked down the reporter’s current email address. “Have you, by any chance, kept a hard copy of that article?” I wrote.
No, he wouldn’t have kept a small story like that, and he advised me to contact the paper.
So I emailed someone at the Herald & Review to inquire. The reply: “Unfortunately, we have no copies of old papers here — we only go back about a year because of lack of storage space.”
Ah, storage. I supposed it’s a good thing I stopped writing in print when the entirety of my journalism career took up only one shelf of a filing cabinet.
There is a happy ending to this story. I did find a copy of the photo I was looking for. The only existing reproduction of this issue from 1995 was stored in the library, on microfilm — just in case, I suppose, something inside was worth saving.