July 17, 2024

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The Disappearance of MTV News’ Online Archive Is a Tragedy

Michael Alex joined MTV News in 1989, where he produced hundreds of segments of “The Week in Rock,” the Peabody-winning “Choose or Lose” series, documentaries and over a thousand daily news television reports. He founded and led MTV News’ digital organization from 1994 until 2007. Variety welcomes responsible commentary — contact [email protected] if interested.

Twenty five years of entertainment history, as reported by MTV News, disappeared from the internet a few days ago, when its parent company, Paramount, removed the site’s archives, along with those of CMT and other outlets — without warning, explanation or comment. What was an invaluable resource for music fans, journalists, cultural ambassadors and millions of people who loved music is simply gone. For how long is uncertain, but what is certain is that from the start, MTV News’ digital archive was created and designed to serve music fans, people who cared about the artists and their art. The archive was no simple repository of old articles — it always was intended to be a playground for fans who wanted to dig deep and learn more. 

Its origin story is this: As a kid in the late 1970s I found old copies of Rolling Stone and Circus magazine for sale, cheap, at a used record store. Flipping through them, I found early interviews with bands that were now on top of the world: Hearing from Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath from when they were just breaking was manna for this music geek. It wasn’t old news — it was hidden treasure.

After I joined MTV News in 1989 as a producer for “The Week in Rock,” it was not uncommon to find interns and staff digging through the videotape library to watch old news reports and interviews with artists they loved. I stayed late many days doing that myself, and I was rarely alone. In the building where Kurt Loder delivered news with his trademark deadpan authority, “You Hear It First” was the mantra — and when fans saw the iconic spinning globe on the TV screen followed by Loder’s latest, they knew he, and we, had something important to share.    

So when the time came for us to go move onto the internet with daily, internet-first music news reports, as Director of MTV News Digital, I specified that we’d create an artist index linking to every report on every artist we ever covered. (This was in the days before search functions were available, so we did it alphabetically.) We launched in November of 1996, and also seeded the archive with transcripts from select old interviews pulled from our videotape library. Want to read MTV’s first interview with Nirvana? TLC? The Rolling Stones? Jay-Z? The Pixies? We have it for you.

MTV News on the web took off like a shot, powered by a loyal base of young people — the early adopters. The way to “hear it first” quickly moved to the web while the television organization pivoted to topically focused news shows, and of course we integrated the two. Over the following years, when major events involving artists happened, mtvnews.com became the go-to source for up-to-the-minute coverage. From the rise of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and NSYNC to Sean Combs’ trial in 2000 on charges related to a New York nightclub shooting, from the tragic death of Aaliyah in a 2001 plane crash to joining Blink-182 and My Chemical Romance on the Warped tour, from following 50 Cent on his tour of Africa to enlisting artists to support get-out-the-vote campaigns during election years, we were the place to go for both speed and depth.  

As a team of music nerds ourselves, we expected the archive to be popular — and within a year we had as many people reading old news articles as we had reading the news of the day: In our early months, we’d done perhaps three small items on the Backstreet Boys when the usage reports suggested that these relatively unknown guys were as popular as the biggest artists on the channel. By the time Google launched and crawled the archive, we were as much in the music-history business as the music-news business.

MTV News always covered a much broader range of artists than the rest of the channel, and for MTV News Digital this was even more the case. Of the many concerns I’ve heard from people in the days since the archive was taken down, the long-running hip-hop column “Mixtape Monday” has been particularly cited. This weekly series of lengthy, in-depth reports — featuring so many unsigned hip-hop artists who went on to become stars or superstars — contains the evolution of the artists and the genre in a way that is not documented anywhere else. Last week, it vanished. For how long? Whether one liked it or not, MTV was a unique cultural force, and MTV News went far beyond the music world: into Hollywood, on presidential campaign trails, to war zones and disaster areas, to the United Nations, and more. Where are all those stories now?

I’m also mindful of the hundreds of journalists who made MTV News what it was and are cut off from a major portion of their career — countless articles they spent countless hours reporting and writing. Of course, they could have saved their articles via PDF or other methods — and probably would have done so if they’d been notified in advance that the archive was vanishing — but the internet was supposed to make that unnecessary. As a former managing editor from the team commented last week, “We’re conditioned to believe the internet is forever — and this proves it’s so not.” 

To be fair, an online archive as vast as MTV News, particularly with its thousands of hours of video, is expensive and difficult to maintain, especially with site relaunches and other technical issues. This was not the first online archive to vanish and it certainly won’t be the last.

But if history has taught us one thing, it’s that archives are valuable — for decades, recording studios threw away priceless master tapes left behind by everyone from the Rolling Stones to James Brown… until they started appearing on bootlegs and the artists and labels began spending thousands to get them back. In their way, the archives of MTV News and countless other news and entertainment organizations have a similar value: They’re a living record of entertainment history as it happened. And although they probably still exist somewhere deep in the bowels of Paramount, it’s not hard to imagine some site-wide update deleting them forever. 

What will happen with the archive? I would think it will be sold; it’s too valuable to simply not exist. But what would those new owners do with it? Presumably charge for access, as the New York Times and other well-established media outlets do. But even with a paywall, at least the history would be available.

History needs stewards, not owners. Whoever legally owns the archive does not legally own the history, even if they own the creative work of thousands of writers, editors, producers and more. This archive — of MTV News, where you heard it first — needs to be available to the public.

(Full disclosure: Variety‘s executive music editor, Jem Aswad, was employed by MTV News from 2004-2010.)

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