Is the web really forever? Some writers are finding out the hard way that it’s not. When DNAInfo and Gothamist suddenly went dark last fall, scores of writers including myself took notice. In a flash, hours upon hours of hard labor and exceptional talent were summarily erased from the internet when a billionaire owner angrily retaliated upon learning that the reporters and editors for those two much-beloved news outlets had voted to unionize.
Freelance writers and journalists began cautioning their peers to back up their articles and blog posts offline so that they could still present them as portfolio pieces to potential clients and employers even if the site where they had originally been published closed down:
Online/digital media is fundamentally ephemeral, but it doesn’t have to be this fucking ephemeral https://t.co/l1ApoZSenY
— Dan Nguyen (╯°□°)ノ these are for you mcnulty (@dancow) November 2, 2017
Oh no! My published articles are gone forever…
When the Gothamist incident happened, I made a note to create a portfolio archive of my own once I had the time to do so. Although I primarily engage in content writing at the moment, I too have had a former client’s site go permanently offline with no advance warning and no opportunity to preserve my work that was published there. Once it was gone it was gone, and that was that.
In that particular case, the impact wasn’t as bad as it could have been since I keep offline copies of all the article drafts I submit to clients, but I still would have preferred to have had the final, edited copies live and accessible via the web. For one thing, their overnight erasure affected my digital portfolios on sites like Contently and Skyword. Suddenly there were ghost entries for portfolio pieces that went to dead links—not a good look. I also knew that I had no hope of retrieving copies of my published pieces from the defunct site. Lesson learned.
Why a digital portfolio is valuable
Being a process nerd as well as a technology nerd, I was actually looking forward to creating a process for archiving my portfolio pieces offline. By this time, I already had a well-oiled process in place for regularly adding published pieces to my digital portfolios as they went live, so I didn’t have to worry about sinking a lot of time into locating all of my published work before archiving my portfolio offline. If you’re a writer who frequently publishes articles online, I highly recommend that you keep an up to date digital portfolio for this purpose.
It’s much easier to add individual pieces to a digital portfolio as they go live than to hunt them down and add them in giant batches later on. In the case of articles I write for Skyword clients, I always receive an email when a piece of mine is published on one of their sites, so it’s easy to add it to all my digital portfolios right there and then. I also schedule the article to post to my social media accounts at that time. Since I publish a monthly newsletter featuring my most recent work, I also save the link for each article I publish to a little notepad file that I then refer to when preparing each month’s newsletter.
Of course, not all of my clients email me when a piece of mine goes live on their sites. In those cases, I set recurring monthly calendar reminders to check to see if any of my recently submitted articles have been published there. When I find them, I simply follow the above process for adding them to my portfolio, social media channels, and newsletter. This process keeps my digital portfolios current, which helps potential clients discover my work. It comes in handy when I need to quickly look up a piece I wrote a while back, too. And it also ties nicely into my new process for archiving portfolio pieces offline.
How I created my offline portfolio archive
When I set out to create a portfolio archive, I quickly found out that there are a lot of different ways to do it. As Google will tell you, there are plenty of apps and services out there suited to the task, from Evernote to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. If you already use a tool or a piece of software that has a web clipper feature, it may be worth your while to use that feature rather than re-inventing the wheel or going out and finding a completely separate solution for your archival needs.
In my case, I just wanted to create PDF files of my published work and store them on my laptop, where I knew they would be automatically backed up each day. As it so happened, I had recently used Microsoft OneNote’s web clipper extension to prepare course materials for a class I teach on nonprofit technology project planning and hiring, and so I felt that free tool was sufficient for my purposes.
Once I had loaded the OneNote web clipper extension into my browser and signed into OneNote (I already had an account), all I had to do was navigate to each article that already existed in my digital portfolio and archive it offline. Once an article was loaded in my browser, I clicked on the OneNote extension and the purple window you see above appeared. I selected the option to save it in Full Page format so as to capture all of the branding and the look and feel from the original site. Then I clicked the Clip button. From there, OneNote saved the piece and asked me if I wanted to see it in OneNote. I clicked Yes.
A new tab opened in my browser and, after a brief wait, my article appeared in OneNote. Once all the images had loaded, I simply clicked on the Print menu as seen above, chose the option to Save as a PDF, and then saved a PDF of the article exactly as it appeared on the client’s website. I saved each article into a specific client folder so I could easily find it later. Since the piece shown above was published on the IBM Mobile Business Insights website, I saved it to a client folder marked IBM. That way, should I need to locate an offline copy later, it would be straightforward to do so.
That’s basically it. The process was pretty smooth and only took a few hours since I already had my digital portfolio ready in another tab. I completed the archival process in a few sessions throughout the space of a week. The only glitch I ran into was that OneNote would occasionally tell me the content could not load after I had tried to save an article, which suggested to me that the data simply hadn’t had enough time to transfer into OneNote. So I paused for a moment, reloaded the page, and it came up just fine. Other than that, I didn’t encounter any challenges and it was actually quite easy to create the archive.
Peace of mind for the writer
Now that my portfolio archive is happily in place, it automatically backs up to a cloud service each day. (The former IT Director in me would like to take this opportunity to recommend that you back up all your offline portfolio pieces and all your business data using a trusted online service and a unique, secure password that you regularly change.) In fact, thanks to OneNote I have several layers of protection should a client’s site suddenly vanish into thin air—my own portfolio archive that lives on my laptop, a backup copy of my portfolio archive that lives in the cloud, and a third copy that resides in OneNote. I no longer worry about getting hit with the Gothamist problem since my articles are now safe and sound, come what may.
Of course, what happened to the journalists and editors at Gothamist and DNAInfo isn’t just concerning because their work was erased in an instant with seemingly no recourse or chance of recovery. Since the owner shuttered those sites as punishment for his employees’ decision to unionize, it represents a chilling example of how quickly local journalism that serves the public interest can vanish without a trace. I’m sure my grandmother, who worked in newspapers all her life, would be horrified had she lived to see this happen. As a writer and a citizen, I’m doubly horrified. Writers deserve to have their work preserved in a meaningful way, and our democracy depends on citizens having access to objective, informed coverage of local issues impacting their lives.
It will require a community effort to ensure that quality journalism writ large survives, of course. Subscribing to your favorite local news source is the advice I hear works best, and I’m heartened to see that newsrooms are fearlessly continuing to unionize across the country in the meantime. But for the more practical and operational issue of how to keep your own writing from disappearing from the web, I hope that the tips I’ve shared here will be helpful to fellow writers. We both deserve and need to save our work for posterity, and this is one way we can easily accomplish that goal.
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