The Woman Who Recorded 35 Years of News on 140,000 Tapes

By Wesley Fenlon

Marion Stokes believed that her vast archive of broadcast news recordings would be her legacy. She was right.

It's weird to think of television being permanently lost. Today we can access modern television broadcasts and movies in so many formats, on so many devices, that video feels eternal. But for decades, television broadcasts, particularly news broadcasts, weren't recorded or preserved. Many of them are gone forever, unless they were preserved by private citizens like Marion Stokes. Fastco has the story of Marion Stokes, who began recording news broadcasts onto VHS tapes in 1977. Once she started, she never stopped.

Stokes died in late 2012, but she left behind a staggering archive of 140,000 VHS tapes packed into four shipping containers. Her legacy is a vast archive of television news, potentially totaling somewhere in the vicinity of 800,000 hours. Before she began religiously archiving the news, Stokes was a librarian and co-produced a television show. Recording the news eventually became the cornerstone of her life--she would run as many as 8 television and VCRs in her home at once, feeding in new tapes every six hours.

Photo credit: Flickr user comedynose via Creative Commons

It's the kind of obsession that could have easily gone to waste after Stokes passed away; those tapes could've been trashed or left to rot away in storage. Thankfully, that didn't happen. Roger Macdonald, who oversees the television branch of the Internet Archive, found out about the collection and reached out to Stokes' son. Now the Stokes estate is shipping the 140,000 VHS tapes to the Archive in Richmond, California, where it will take years to digitize them all. Hopefully, that will eventually lead to the entire collection being available online.

Photo credit: FastCo

John Lynch, the director of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, explained why Stokes' collection is such an important slice of history. Fastco writes: "Early broadcast news isn’t easy to find, Lynch says, because while networks often did a good job of archiving the footage they used to make the show, they were less meticulous about saving the show itself--a pattern he attributes to 'a sense of modesty on their part.' More recent news reports are more likely to be available from stations themselves, but stations typically charge an access fee."

When cable news became popular, Stokes recorded CNN, Fox, CSPAN, MSNBC and CNBC, catching as much of the 24-hour news cycle as she could. As the Internet Archive digitizes her collection, hopefully we'll be able to see more than the news about any given historical event--we'll be able to see how many different news organizations covered that event, and potentially trace the impact those broadcasts had on public perception and popular culture.