The past is never really past

Case Study: Our Back Pages

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel resurrects the archives to understand today through the lens of the past

Thousands of marchers honor Martin Luther King Jr. on Wisconsin Ave. four days after King’s assassination. This photo was published on the front page of the Milwaukee Sentinel on April 9, 1968, and appeared in the Journal Sentinel 50 years later in the paper’s yearlong retrospective on the year 1968.

Chris Foran, an assistant entertainment editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, digs into the archives for sections of the paper called the Green Sheet and Our Back Pages. His goal is to share photos and stories from the past that “connect, reflect and sometimes contradict the Milwaukee we know today.”

“Working on these stories,” Foran said, “I also thought about the nature of Milwaukee, where, like Mr. Faulkner’s South, the past is never really past.”

He shares his process in this Q+A.

Where do you visit to find historical/archival content? Outside of the Journal Sentinel system, do you have any favorite sources (like Library of Congress, etc)?

Most of the historical/archival stories I’ve written have drawn directly from the JS archives. The Our Back Pages feature is designed to bring back old photos and stories.

We have the papers on microfilm, and they’re also available in the Google Newspaper Archive.

Browse the archives for free on the Google News Archive

A better/more usable sources is NewsBank, a digital archive that has scanned more than a hundred years of Milwaukee Journal, Sentinel and Journal Sentinel into one, text-searchable database.

But there are other databases worth using. New York Times — especially if you have a digital subscription — is invaluable, chiefly because it’s all there.

Google is also digitizing The New York Times’ enormous physical 5–7 million images in its photo archive

There’s a subscription-based site called Newspapers.com that gives you searchable access to hundreds of papers around the country, as well as smaller papers in Wisconsin. Since most of what I write is tied to Milwaukee, I also mine other histories and books about Milwaukee’s past.

Where did the idea come from for writing about articles from the archives for the Green Sheet, where your archival stories appear? Why do you think it is valuable to readers?

I try to take features from the original section and do them, well, better. The old Green Sheet used to have a standing feature that was a standalone photo under the heading “Remember When?” It usually was a picture of something from 1900, and from a County Historical Society photo.

Growing up here, that used to make me crazy because I couldn’t remember when something happened 70 years earlier.

Going into this Green Sheet project, I also knew our multimedia ace Bill Schulz had just stumbled on a huge stage of old negatives from the Journal and Sentinel from the 1930s to the 1980s. Since the Journal had for decades a national-award-winning photo staff, I wanted to bring those photos back.

Like Mr. Faulkner’s South, the past is never really past.

Working on these stories, I also thought about the nature of Milwaukee, where, like Mr. Faulkner’s South, the past is never really past. So we focused on photos that could tell interesting stories that people didn’t know, or stories that told about Milwaukee’s past in a way that shows how it got to where it is now. At least, that was the idea.

Do you just start digging in the archives or do you have an idea in mind first of what you want to find?

Both. I keep files and Word documents with ideas — stuff I run into or hear about from readers or just know about because I’ve lived here forever and am interested in local history. But the archives bear all sorts of unexpected fruit — a photo that tells a story I’d never heard before, or stories that shed a different kind of light on events that happened here.

How do you pick a theme to explore, like the paper’s yearlong focus on 1968? Do you look to connect the past to today in some tangible way?

It’s been our experience (or at least our history of digital traffic) that readers connect better with stories they’re already connected to.

Some of the most-read stories we’ve done this year were the ones about the 1982 Brewers’ celebrations (when they won the pennant and when they lost the Series), which I put together during the Brewers’ playoff run this year.

[Editor’s note: I also used the archives to cover the Brewers run and the connection to Marquette University]

Or when they announced last year that there wouldn’t be a Christmas parade, we revived a story about the first Schuster’s Christmas parade to show where the tradition came from.

Over the past year, we focused that on Milwaukee in 1968 — the result of an ill-timed comment I made to my bosses that it was a year of big events in Milwaukee, not just the world.

In addition to the obvious local angles on big national stories (King’s assassination, the political conventions), that was the year the open housing marches ended, the first Summerfest was held, the Milwaukee 14 burned draft records, the Bucks played their first game and the Marquette Interchange opened.

I knew that there would be other stories to tell as well, and started collecting ideas all year long.

I’m sure there’s too much to choose from, but do you have a favorite article that you’ve written about from the archives.

Lining up for the latest cool home technology — in 1954

Bill Schulz found an interesting photo that looked, to him, like a bunch of people lining up in front of a sandwich shop on Teutonia Ave. The caption that was with the negative wasn’t much help, so I dove into our microfilm archives and found out what it was and when it ran: The people were actually lining up down the block on Jan. 1, 1954, to go into an appliance store to see Milwaukee’s first display of color TV.

Another Bill Schulz photo discovery: 10 puppies in beer glasses from 1953. Trying to solve the mystery of what the heck it was for, and where it was taken, was a fun search through archives, city directories and old microfilm. (A bar owner had called the old Journal suggesting a photo, likely to promote his bar, but the photo, as it ran in the paper, cropped out every hint that there was a bar involved at all. Plus: puppies.)

Puppy photos were big long before the internet.

As mentioned, I grew up in Milwaukee, and am a longtime baseball fan. My father had told me about, after the Braves leaving town, Milwaukee recruiting the Twins and White Sox to come to Milwaukee in 1967 to show Major League Baseball that we would support a team. They played an exhibition game that sold so many tickets that some people stood in the warning track at old County Stadium — or so my dad told me. I dug into our archives and was able to find the photos from that game and recreate it on the 50th anniversary. And then, during the 1968 series, I got to write about it again.

After the Braves but before the Brewers — there were baseball fans in Milwaukee

Any other advice to add for those looking up the archives?

I’ve learned a few things doing these stories the past three-plus years. The short version:

Don’t assume the present-tense sources are going to realize they’re recording history. Daily newspapers sometimes miss the big picture (forest vs. trees), but they see details that also contradict conventional look-back wisdom.

My favorite: Wisconsin, the so-called progressive state, gave a primary win to [anti-war Democrat] Eugene McCarthy in 1968, but ended up voting for [conservative Republican] Nixon in November — and giving a lot of votes to George Wallace, who first ran outside the South in the 1964 Wisconsin Primary and almost won. Today, we’d be surprised. Back then, not so much.

Anything else to add?

Digital archives are great, but they’re only as good as the data being input. NewsBank is still powered by visual-recognition software, so it sometimes gets words wrong. If I can’t find what I’m looking for, I try other words and search terms and hope I’ve triangulated correctly. It works more often than you’d think.

One thing I had to get over right away was that, no matter how thorough I was searching, I had no way of knowing if I had all the information on the topic. Databases, especially ones compiled by third-party vendors, are less complete than you might think.

And even when you’re consulting your own — Marquette’s yearbook collections, the Journal Sentinel’s photo archives — the way things are entered in the database might not be the way you’re searching for it.

(The old Journal library, for example, would constantly change a search category to accommodate the present reality — so a bank that got bought three or four times might wind up only under the last bank’s name, even if the stories you’re looking for are under the earlier ones.) The more these searches get automated and digitized, the more human error/whim enters into using them.

Thank you Chris Foran for sharing your time and expertise! Today’s newspaper may be the first draft of history, but it still takes context, understanding and the expertise of someone like Foran to put yesterday’s news in today’s context.

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity: http://bit.ly/thecreativejourney

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