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All the news that's fit to scan

Financial Post, July 2003


For anyone who has ever had the misfortune of trying to track down an old newspaper article by scrolling through endless rolls of fragile microfilm, help is on the way.

Using optical recognition software, Ottawa-based Cold North Wind Inc. is pumping new life-and revenue-into old news by digitizing newspaper archives from around the world and making them available and searchable online.

"We feel the newspaper is the record of continuous life for the past 500 years," says CEO Bob Huggins. And that's what makes easy-to-use, widely accessible digital archives an invaluable tool for students, genealogy buffs and other researchers, he says.

When Mr. Huggins worked on the team that created InfoGlobe, the Globe and Mail's database, in the 1980s, he says his imagination was captured by the rich social history contained within old newspapers that most people never see.

That is what led him to create Cold North Wind in 1999 with a team of like-minded history buffs with backgrounds in newspaper and software development who liked the idea of creating an online database of newspapers from around the world. "It was a pretty wild idea," says Mr. Huggins.

But unlike many wild ideas of the '90s, this one had staying power. Cold North Wind currently has a staff of 24 with offices in Ottawa, Falls Church, Virginia, and Guadalajara, Mexico.

The bread and butter of the company's business is its digital publishing service. Using technology developed in-house, Cold North Wind converts documents stored on rolled microfilm into digital computer files. It is an automated process that works quickly-Mr. Huggins says two million pages from The Toronto Star's 110-year history were archived in less than four months.

What sets Cold North Wind's archives apart from most media databases, which are text-only, is that they are exact replicas of the original broadsheet page. And what's more, everything on the page, whether it is an article, obituary or advertisement, is completely searchable, down to a word, a real treat for researchers used to combing haphazardly through microfilm.

"It's magical that you can follow something like the Civil War, from the fall of Richmond to the assassination of Lincoln, on a day-by-day basis," says Mr. Huggins.

The other advantage of being able to see the whole page as it was originally published is seeing how articles were presented.

"If you look at traditional sources like wire feeds and [text] databases, you don't know if a story appeared above the fold on page A1, or if it was continued prominently somewhere in the paper, or if it was buried, and all of those things are interesting," says Mr. Huggins.

He says online digital archives show great promise in generating new profit from old content for newspapers. As well as being used internally, Mr. Huggins says newspaper archives are in great demand by public and institutional libraries. He says the recently completed archive for the Globe made back the cost of digitization in almost 90 days after it was launched in November 2002, which surprised even him.

"Before this, I could never really articulate the return on investment [in digitization], but now here's a great example of a major paper that has been really well received," says Mr. Huggins. "That bodes very well for this type of information and the shift from textual to more image-based databases."

In addition to its Canadian clients, Cold North Wind's unique archiving service has attracted clients from outside its core newspaper focus around the world. Mr. Huggins says Cold North Wind recently worked with the National Archives of Canada to create an online archive of portions of former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King's diaries, and the company now at work on creating an online version of the Canadian Historical Dictionary.

The company also recently completed the first phase of a US$10 million deal to archive every newspaper ever printed in Mexico, and is also at work on a special online collection of day-by-day Civil War reporting for The Washington Post.

The other side of Cold North Wind's business, building a global online newspaper archive, has also gathered speed in the past six months. That project, called Paper of Record (www.paperofrecord.com) was started when the company bought the publication rights to 250 defunct papers in Australia and Canada.

Unlike its major competitor and former investor, Michigan-based ProQuest, which targets the top 10 US newspapers, Cold North Wind sets its sights a little lower by targeting the more than 1,500 small and mid-sized newspapers across North America.

"They're the low-hanging fruit for us, the small weeklies, the independent papers," says Mr. Huggins. As he explains, those newspapers are more willing to share their content on the Paper of Record web site in exchange for a fully functional digital archive than larger papers.

"The cost of microfilming is quite prohibitive," says John Clement, publisher of The Perth Courier, of Perth, Ont., who says partnering with Cold North Wind has worked out well for his newspaper. "Response [from readers] has been great. Access to our archives used to be very limited, but now readers can access our paper from around the world," says Clement.

Since subscriptions to Paper of Record went on sale this past November, Mr. Huggins says more than 10,000 users have signed up. "It's amazing and it's something we never envisioned," he says. He says the next step will be beefing up the American content on the site, since many of the subscribers are from the US.


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