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Is the Sun-Times selling off its heritage at garage sale prices? The other day eBay put up for auction an item from the paper’s archives described as “Original Photo 1913 Thomas Edison Family NICE!!!” Bidding started at $10 and ended four days later at $27.
Meanwhile, a 1930 photo of wonder dog Rin Tin Tin from the same source didn’t move and was taken off the market. The boilerplate in the description of each photo said, “This photo originates from the archives of Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. This is not a reproduction or reprint. Most photos have never been seen by the public. . . . These photos emanate from a working news archive and thus concede routine physical imperfections that can include production faults, hand placed editorial notes, and paste up residue.”
Last time I checked, the seller, “lexibell,” was auctioning off some 1,500 archived pictures, $9.99 being the standard asking price to open the bidding. Few of the pictures, from what I could see, were fetching even that, though I noticed that bidding for a 1949 photo of a Frank Lloyd Wright design for a “butterfly wing bridge” in San Francisco had driven the price up to $12.50.
At $9.99 a pop, the photo collection of the Sun-Times isn’t going to put that newspaper, so recently in bankruptcy, on easy street. But what will the paper be once all that history gets thrown off the back of the wagon? Some of the photos lexibell’s putting up for auction presumably were taken by Howard Simmons, a former Sun-Times photographer who happens to be the subject of this week’s Reader cover story. It’s an insult to Simmons to price his work at $9.99.
Fortunately, I’m distorting what has actually happened. Lexibell turns out to be John Rogers, a 37-year-old, independently wealthy businessman who lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and claims the world's largest private collection of vintage photos. Rogers says his “personal archives” now come to about 30 million images.
Sun-Times publisher John Barron told me that last December his paper sold its archive of more than a million photos and negatives to Rogers for a “sizable cash payment.” Neither he nor Rogers will be precise, but Rogers said it ran to seven figures. The Sun-Times retains “all the intellectual property, all the copyrights,” Barron said. What’s more, Rogers is obliged to re-create the “entire library in digital searchable form,” and make it accessible to the Sun-Times.
This means Rogers is doing for the Sun-Times something it couldn’t afford to do for itself but dearly wanted to. “If we could have pulled it off,” said Barron, “it would have taken years and years and years and millions of dollars.” So the deal was a “dream come true.” And far from surrendering its photo archive, he says, once it's digitized the Sun-Times will be able to exploit it to tap a growing “aftermarket” for copies of old news photos.
Says Rogers by phone from Arkansas, “Keep in mind, the stuff on eBay is things I don’t want. It’s not the best items. We’ve got a team of archivists at work on the archives daily, here and in Memphis, a few other places. If we can get rid of some photos we’ve got five or six of, it can pay for a few light bulbs and a few salaries. We can fully digitize 200,000 images a month and we’re ramping up to 400,000. That’s a lot of man hours, a lot of double shifts. The eBay thing is minuscule.“
Rogers says he’s also bought the photo archives of the Detroit News, the Denver Post, and the old Sport magazine, and he’s been evaluating other papers. Some collections are so physically ravaged by neglect he doesn’t want them, while others are too picked over. He tells me that when he evaluates an archive he measures it against a list of 200 names and events that ought to be strongly represented. For instance, when he assessed the archives of a New York City paper he didn’t identify, “there was no Ruth, no Gehrig, no Mantle.” So he didn’t buy it. “Someone obviously went in and took the good stuff.”
“The Rocky Mountain News is a good example of what can happen when a newspaper folds,” Rogers says. The Rocky went out of business in February of 2009. “All those photos were given to the Denver Public Library and are sitting in a basement in storage. The library can’t sell them to me, and they don’t have the money to digitize them. So they’ll stay in the basement. I spoke to a very nice lady at the library. I said, ‘Can they be accessed by the public?’ She said, ‘Not at this time.’ ‘Will they ever be digitized?’ ‘We don’t have the funds to do it.’
“So it is what it is,” says Rogers. “And to be honest, now that we have the Denver Post, the Rocky’s pictures are redundant.”
INSTANT UPDATE: John Rogers's cautionary tale of the Rocky Mountain News appears to be not exactly on the money. Jim Kroll, manager of the department of western history, tells me that the library is inheriting 350,000 digital images that are still in the possession of E.W. Scripps, the parent company, on hard drives in Ohio. But financial issues involving the transfer of those images to the library's database have been resolved, and the library will soon take possession of them.
In addition, the library has hundreds of thousands of Rocky negatives that it had been receiving and organizing since the 1940s. And now it's storing 412 boxes of prints — not in the basement but on the sixth floor, says Kroll. "These we will probably digitize on an at-need basis — the negatives we already have," says Kroll. "Someone could come in and determine what prints they want made and we’d do that for them for a fee." What's expensive, he adds, isn't the digitizing itself — it's the creation of metadata that's necessary for digital archives to be navigated. (The 350,000 images from Scripps will come with metadata.)
So, according to Kroll, the Rocky photos will be digitized — though on a slow, piecemeal basis. And they will be accessible to the public — though not easily, and not cheaply. Rogers stands modified, not contradicted.
(Here's an article I wrote last July about the Rocky's digital archives and the challenge they posed to the public library. I mistakenly reported then that the paper's old photos were going to the Colorado Historical Society.)
FURTHER UPDATE: John Rogers says not to worry, Howard Simmons photos will not be auctioned off for $9.99. "He was phenomenal. It would be insulting to him," says Rogers, who tells me his operation is preserving but not auctioning staff-shot photos such as Simmons's.