Historic Detroit News items go to state archives

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

As The Detroit News packs up for the move to our new Fort Street location Friday, staffers have been poring through treasures and oddities from almost 100 years of producing journalism at 615 W. Lafayette Blvd.

Think of it as a cross between "American Pickers," "History Detectives" and "Hoarders," if the latter show featured a 141-year-old newspaper instead of someone's elderly, pack-rat uncle.

The good news is that much of our archival material will be available for the first time for the public to see and use as research, because the bulk of it is going to the state Archives of Michigan, and is being digitized and preserved for our access, and the future.

One of the most interesting tools for genealogists and historians will be 2 million typed index cards that Pulitzer Prize winner David Ashenfelter said are "worth their weight in gold."

The cards were typed by Detroit News librarians and index Detroit News stories from the early 1900s to 2000 (with some going back to the 19th century). For example, you could look up Abe Bernstein of the Purple Gang and find a card with his name on it with the title, date and page number of every story that appeared in the newspaper about him, from his first troubles with the law, to his death. You can then go to the microfilm and know exactly the month, day and page number for any story you need.

Ashenfelter, who with Sydney Freedberg, won a Pulitzer Prize for The News in 1982, explained: "Without the index cards, it's nearly impossible to compile the body of any reporter's work or find the bulk of the old clips on various topics before the digital library system went online around 2000. All you need are the coordinates of any story on the index cards to quickly find it on microfilm."

Not every newspaper documented its journalism in such a way; Ashenfelter lamented that the Free Press, where he was a reporter after he left the News, didn't have such a catalog.

State archivist Mark Harvey agreed that access to The Detroit News index file, both at the Archives in Lansing, but also on its website, will be one of the greatest benefits to the public. The state has had high-tech scanners going nonstop for two weeks on the index cards alone.

"Within two to three months it will be up and available online," Harvey said. "That's the highlight of this, and so is the partnership with The News for the photo negative archives. We estimated conservatively that there are some 10 to 14 million images."

The negatives that the state archives is digitizing are from photos taken by News photographers, most from the 1980s-2002.

"We'll create an index and work with The Detroit News to make galleries online," Harvey said.

There will be an e-commerce site, where the state archives and The News will share profits from the sale of images.

At one time, The Detroit News employed 24 librarians in its Catlin Library, and they were busy. There is so much historical material here that Harvey says having it "gives us the opportunity to go after federal grants, for such a significant collection. Frankly, from a cultural heritage perspective, this gives us opportunities to celebrate Detroit and its history."

All of The Detroit News materials will be available to researchers to see at the Archives of Michigan in Lansing, as well as in a special portal that will go up soon on its website.

"Genealogists will go crazy over this," said Detroit News librarian Danielle Kaltz, who with Michael Brown, Detroit News assistant managing editor for information technology, has been scurrying for months to find homes for the Detroit News' library holdings.

Deciding what to keep, what to digitize and what to allocate to others to preserve for the future was a priority.

Some of the artifacts going with us are a bronze bust of Evening News Association founder James E. Scripps, microfilm of Detroit News stories going back to 1873 (and the paper will have a state-of-the-art microfilm projector), vintage books on the subject of Detroit or Michigan, and a red 1964 Detroit News soap box derby car.

The Detroit News "clip file" — known as the "morgue" in old newspaper movies — is also going to the state archives and will be available for research in Lansing. The clip file, kept in filing cabinets weighing 250 pounds each, was vital for reporters in the pre-Internet era, to look up stories on specific topics.

"The great thing about it is, it's going locally, not out of state," Kaltz said.

Some things were discovered in searching the building and nine-story garage that hadn't been seen by human eyes in decades, and getting to them required some "Pickers"-style ingenuity.

In the basement of the 1920s-era garage were locked cases containing leather-bound copies of The Detroit News dating back to the first issue, Aug. 23, 1873, when it was The Evening News. Just to make it interesting, there were no keys for the ancient locks.

"We had to drill into the cases," Brown said.

The bulk of those bound issues were in good shape and are going to the Archives of Michigan.

Other research institutions that will receive material include the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, which will house 771 scrapbooks that were dubbed the "scrapatorium" by News librarians. The scrapatorium consists of articles cut and pasted into books by news subject (UAW, Detroit riots, etc.).

The scrapbooks were a quick way for reporters and editors to refresh their memories on certain perennial topics.

The Bentley also will get 167 11-by-14 glass negatives, 146 8-by-10s and 48 5-by-7s. The negatives will be digitized so the Bentley — and the newspaper — will see them for the first time in decades. Glass negatives of The Detroit News building, inside and out, will become part of the Bentley's Albert Kahn Collection.

"I am stoked; I can't wait to see these," Kaltz said.

Glass negatives of photos taken from The News' 1931 autogyro, a history-making, low-flying aircraft that took news photographs for the paper, were donated to The Henry Ford. The museum is an apt location, because the autogyro itself has been there since 1933.

The Detroit Historical Museum will receive Michigan-related pamphlets and a Hulcher 70 high-speed camera, "the same camera the Air Force used for surveillance during World War II," Brown said.

Even the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is getting something — The News' bound DSO concert programs from 1915-1981.

The Cranbrook Educational Community — which started out as the private home of George Booth, president of the Evening News Association and its publisher, and Ellen Scripps Booth, daughter of the founder — will receive several books that meticulously document a 1940 appraisal of The Detroit News inside and out, down to how much oak wood paneling there is in the building and what it's worth, to the five $20 (a piece) stepladders in the library.

"You know what I'm going to miss?" Kaltz said. "Apart from the cork floors, and the smell of old books, this," as she opened and slammed shut an index card file drawer. It's a satisfying, metallic clunk every veteran reporter — and librarian — will fondly recall.

The Detroit News at the Archives of Michigan

The Archives of Michigan, which will house a vast number of The Detroit News' historical clips, negatives and index files, is at 702 W. Kalamazoo, Lansing, (517) 373-1415. Much of the Detroit News collection will be online, but for some, researchers will have to arrange to travel to Lansing.

That missing Pulitzer medal

One thing that did not turn up in the months-long house cleaning at The News was the Pulitzer Prize public service medal the newspaper won in 1982 for a series by Sydney P. Freedberg and David Ashenfelter that brought to light a coverup by the U.S. Navy of the deaths of seamen aboard ships, and led to significant reforms.

News staffers were used to seeing the medal on the wall by the front lobby elevators, but it disappeared during a renovation of the building in the late 1990s, when the Detroit Free Press was moved into the building. It was Ashenfelter who started asking about it, and it was discovered that in fact, nobody knew where it was.

Ashenfelter is glad to have a certificate from the Pulitzer committee, but as it's not an option to get a replacement, he'd like to see the medal returned to the newspaper. No questions asked.