“I seem to be the last man standing here,” said Jeff Roth. Dressed in a sharp gray suit with a white handkerchief peeking from the pocket, Mr. Roth was 24 feet below sidewalk level, in the depths of the New York Times Building at 229 West 43rd Street.
Mr. Roth, a group-three clerk for The Times, is the keeper of the paper’s morgue, the files of millions of clippings that served as the institutional memory for a century. “There were probably 50 guys like me at one time, who knew where everything was.”
The clips currently take up a labyrinthine space, an intricate system of dusty file cabinets and stacked cardboard boxes. Only one elevator currently goes from the Times lobby down to the basement. It was once the pressroom, but the presses were packed up and shipped to the Philippines in 1997.
Next month, the morgue is due to move out, too. While The Times relocates into its new ultra-modern office tower on Eighth Avenue, the morgue will go to the basement of the former New York Herald Tribune headquarters on West 41st Street—no longer inside the main Times building, but still hanging on.
“It’s just next-door,” Mr. Roth said, meaning next to the new Renzo Piano skyscraper, not the old building. “They were thinking about sending it to Edison, but the newsroom made a big to-do. The newsroom is always the final decider.”
Mr. Roth, giving a tour, turned questions about himself to the subject of the “working, living, breathing archive” that he tends.
The morgue was already into its afterlife when Mr. Roth first encountered it in 1995, visiting the paper to research his distant cousin, Times reporting legend Meyer Berger. The clipping of stories had officially stopped in June of 1990, with the rise of electronic archiving. The morgue was on the third floor then; Mr. Roth was hired on a part-time basis as it was being moved to the basement. Portions of the holdings were shipped off to the New York Public Library (e.g., biographies, aircraft, Connecticut) and to the University of Texas (e.g., Lyndon Baines Johnson, foreign coverage).
That still left plenty of material at The Times. From the file cabinets in the industrial cavern, Mr. Roth turned up multi-referenced folders on Gary Hart’s doomed Presidential campaign and clips from the Daily Worker criticizing The Times’ coverage of socialism. One June 1951 piece, headed “Soviet Laughter and Capitalist Frowns,” found fault with The Times’ reporting on Stalin.
There were the collected writings of T. Walter Williams, a shipping-news reporter, who Mr. Roth said created “completely fanciful stories with these crazy characters.” Written as straight news, the pieces tipped off the joke by including the likes of Marmaduke M. Mizzle, of Mincing Lane in London.
The morgue was born in the early 1900’s, when clerks began clipping the various editions of each day’s Times, along with the city’s other daily newspapers and important magazines. Images were preserved in the picture library, originally part of the art department, which joined the clippings down in the basement.
Allan Siegal, who retired last year as The Times’ standards editor, said that when he started as a copy boy in 1960, reporters would send him down to the morgue for clips. “There were people who had worked there for many decades,” Mr. Siegal said. “They knew far more than you would think to ask.”
And the files have a breadth unavailable to reporters who punch search terms into Nexis or ProQuest. “With the morgue,” Mr. Siegal said, “the more time you had to work with the clips, the richer the material you would get out of them. You had time to meander with them …. [Without access to them,] what you finally produce is less rich than if you had been able to run your fingers through the clips.”
The clips, he added, convey information that the searcher may not have known to look for—often simply through the layout and typeface, which an engine such as Nexis doesn’t preserve. “You can instantly, viscerally, spot the importance by the size of the heading and style of the headline,” Mr. Siegal said.