How publishers are finding new ways to feature old content

From long-forgotten stories to archival photos, newspapers and magazines are sitting on a treasure trove of old content. Sure, some of this content is outdated or inconsequential, but some is evergreen or intriguingly retro. Who wouldn’t want to see a 1955 New York Times photo of a Jetsons-esque robot or revisit a 2001 Economist article on why a week has seven days (hint: Mesopotamia)? 

With the aid of digital technologies and social networks, publishers are starting to bring these archives out of the dusty back room and onto the world wide web. Below are a few of the new ways publications are featuring old content.

1. Facebook timeline: Since the launch of timeline at the end of 2011, publishers can now add stories and images retroactively to their Facebook pages. Fans of the Wall Street Journal can see what the paper looked like on Black Monday in 1929. And New Yorker fans can learn when John Cheever wrote his first story for the magazine (May 25, 1935) and actually read the story in its original format. Using Facebook timeline seems to be one of the easiest ways to highlight older content, yet I was surprised by how many publications (the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, National Geographic) aren’t taking advantage of it.

WSJ Black Monday 

2. Tweets from the archive: There are often tens of thousands of old articles buried within a publication’s website. By tweeting links to less time-sensitive articles, publishers can help followers discover old stories that are still relevant. The only publisher to my knowledge who sends archival tweets regularly is The Economist, who has recently resurfaced articles such as the cult of working out (2002) and the science of aging whiskey (2000).

The Economist archival tweet

3. Classic images: Given the popularity of historic photographs and retro magazine covers, it’s no surprise that publications are using social media to link to archival images. The New York Times has its popular “Lively Morgue” Tumblr, which publishes several photographs a week from the Times’ extensive photo archive. Known for creative and controversial covers, Vanity Fair posts some of the best ones on its Tumblr page and via its Instagram account. National Geographic, famous for its stunning photography, even has a free iPad app that, among other things, highlights one classic photograph a day.    


4. Special paid apps: Of course, linking to existing content or putting an old photo on your Facebook page isn’t going to bring in the money that most publications so desperately need. That’s why many are trying to bundle older content into paid iPad apps. Golf Digest, for example, has taken years of instructional video and tips and put it into the $20 GolfLogix app (thanks to Mashable’s Lauren Indvik for the tip). Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia offers a $4.99 app that brings “Martha Stewart’s world of paper crafting and design to your iPad.” For $3.99 you can download an app full of Cooking Light recipes, and for a dollar more, you can get Real Simple’s recipe app.

The Atlantic Civil War5. E-books: Another way publishers are monetizing existing content is by repackaging it into e-books. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of September 11th, for instance, the New Yorker released a $7.99 e-book anthology, which features previously published writings on the event. Vanity Fair released an e-book , “The Sopranos: The Vanity Fair Oral History”,  an extended version of an article already published in the magazine. And the Atlantic has now published four e-books and a spokesperson tells me there are more on the horizon. A special Civil War anniversary e-book even included actual Atlantic reporting from the era, supplemented by new essays. The New York Times also seems to think the e-book market will be lucrative, recently signing a deal with Byliner to produce a dozen nonfiction narratives in 2013.