Recently, we undertook to write a story about President Kennedy’s visit to Houston on November 21, 1963, the day before his assassination in Dallas [“The Last Supper,” November]. As part of our research, we headed downtown to the Central Library, checking out an armful of books about Kennedy—biographies, memoirs, histories of the assassination. We visited the website of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, finding a video of Kennedy speaking in Houston before the League of United Latin American Citizens.
From there, we decided to look up local newspaper accounts of Kennedy’s visit on the Internet, which is when our luck ran out. Online archives of the Houston Chronicle only go back to 1985, while the Houston Post, whose assets were purchased by the Chronicle upon the Post’s demise in 1995, is not available online at all. In fact, the only contemporaneous newspaper account was on the Galveston Daily News site—“JFK’s Welcome Warm Despite Factional Feud,” read the paper’s headline on November 22.
We were able to access both Chronicle and Post archives on microfilm at the Central Library, but really, given their importance to the city—and the scholars, students, and anyone else who might want to better understand Houston’s history—shouldn’t the archives of its daily newspapers be more widely available?
For a time, the Chronicle did indeed provide online access to the Post’s archives (although only for the years 1985 to ’95, or roughly one-twelfth of the paper’s 115-year history). Then, in 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that online newspaper archives could not include stories by freelancers without those writers’ consent. The Chronicle, citing an inability to determine which Post stories had been written by freelancers, promptly took down the entire archive. Now, it’s as if the Post never existed.
The Chronicle was apparently able to weed out the freelancers from its own archives, of course, and yet none of the paper’s pre-1985 stories is accessible without a trip to the library. Word is that the Chronicle’s owner—Manhattan-based media conglomerate The Hearst Corporation—decided that digitizing the paper’s archives is too costly (although that didn’t deter the far less wealthy Galveston paper, whose online archive goes back to 1841).
The Chronicle and Post constitute important public resources for the city of Houston—both archives should be available online. If Hearst won’t cough up the money, perhaps the City of Houston or a civic-minded benefactor should step in with the necessary funds. Part of being the paper of record, after all, is actually providing a record.