The Ultimate Guide to Back Issues
The wonders of online archives… as told through a "Succession" reading list
Welcome back to Culture Club, a feature where David and I talk about what we’ve been reading, watching, playing, and listening to, for paid subscribers. Please enjoy this free preview, and consider upgrading to support two struggling journalists at once! — Talia
Two days before Christmas in 2020, I lost the best job of my career, when the billionaire owner of the Village Voice pulled an Ebenezer Scrooge on me. The Voice, where I was culture editor until 2018, had ceased publishing two years before, but until that Christmas I was kept on like the ghost of deadlines past, curating the paper’s archives, and filling our phantom website with the Voice’s greatest hits. As an obsessive consumer of New York history, this was like having access to the not-so-secret history of the city’s counterculture.
I’ve since become something of an archive evangelist, an obsession that’s led to an Excel spreadsheet thousands of articles deep—stories that I may want to reread, refer to, or share with others. While there was no Damascene epiphany, I became convinced that back issues are one of the most under-utilized resources at a publication’s disposal. And most do a pretty terrible job with them.
Take Rolling Stone, where I worked for years. It has one of the best, most complete archives around—but you wouldn’t know it from the website. The magazine’s classic articles—Fear and loathing with Hunter S. Thompson! Almost famous with Cameron Crowe!—are all there, but can be so difficult to find it seems like Rolling Stone is determined to quarantine its past. The New Yorker has made every page it’s ever published available, and for years employed a full-time archive editor. But because it was so early on the digital train, the vast majority of material is locked into an outmoded interface where you have to clumsily scroll through crummy scans. I’ve spent countless hours in these archives, and discovered writers like St. Clair McKelway who have become some of my favorites. But the user experience is abysmal.
Last year, The Atlantic launched its complete archives, and they’ve done things right: 165 years of the magazine, digitally scanned but easily searchable. The National Geographic has taken similar approach, although their collection only goes back to 1888. At Vanity Fair, you can read scans of the original magazine pages, but you can also read the individual articles as familiar internet posts. The scanned issues offer a sense of time and place: you get to appreciate the original design and photography, and the vintage ads are always a trip.
Now I should pause to note that the above-mentioned archives are only accessible to subscribers. I’m firmly in favor of paying for journalism, and the more magazine and newspaper subscribers the better. But there are a number of archival collections in the public domain: the Internet Archive is an invaluable resource, and Google Books has the best collection of archival magazine journalism available: complete archives of Spy magazine, Life, most issues of New York, The Advocate, Mother Jones, Spin, and hundreds more. (You can blame Google for my curiously chiropractic headline; SEO rules everything around me.)
To spotlight the breadth of available archival material online, I wanted to assemble a selection of articles on a given topic; given next week’s “Succession” finale, I settled on the monstrous media moguls that inspired creator Jesse Armstrong’s anticapitalist Shakespearean opus, from William Randolph Hearst to Rupert Murdoch. If nothing else, I hope this reading list will give you some good talking points for the water cooler this week, and inspire you to do do some archival spelunking of your own.
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