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The strange saga of John Rogers, the man who bought the Star Tribune's vintage photo archive

John Rogers shown in his photo archive in North Little Rock
Brian Chilson/Arkansas Times
John Rogers shown in his photo archive in North Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2012.

Whatever else you might say about him, John Rogers was clearly one hell of a salesman.

After first buying up several high-profile collections of sports memorabilia, the Little Rock entrepreneur hit on the idea of talking big-city newspapers out of their predigital photo archives. The basic deal being that after negotiating a price, his Rogers Photo Archive would send a truck or two up, package the not­-so-­orderly files of old photos and negatives and haul them back to Arkansas. There his staff would painstakingly scan and organize the material. This would allow the papers to have far more convenient access to their archives — and gave Rogers the photographs and shared rights to the images.

It worked until it didn’t.

Today, Rogers faces more than a dozen lawsuits, which together seek something north of $90 million. First, sports collectors who bought what they thought were original items from Rogers began crying “fake.” Then a series of people Rogers did business with started suing him over unpaid bills. Finally, the FBI raided his place, and he was tossed out of the business, a receiver appointed to make sense of the mess.

The thought that big-city newspapers like the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press here in Minnesota — and others in Chicago, Detroit and Denver — were willing to hand over (for a nice price) one of their (and their community’s) most valuable historical archives to a character like Rogers is startling in itself, and may explain why so little has been said about the deal.

It is kind of embarrassing.

Reporting about Rogers by any of the papers known to have bought into his now-foundered scheme is rare to non­existent. Locally, those in the know aren't  much more forthcoming. Calls to PiPress Editor Mike Burbach, (the preferred go­-to guy for staffers reluctant to say anything on record), were not returned. After a bit of bouncing around, the Strib’s VP for marketing, Steve Yaeger, got back to concede, “Oh, it’s a story and a half. But because we still have business matters with [Rogers] I can’t say very much about it.”

Features department photo editor Tom Sweeney, who was surprised to hear of the raid and lawsuits against Rogers, had confirmed that the Strib trucked off their photos to Rogers roughly 18 months ago. He did say that Rogers’ operation had notified the Strib that work had been completed, and that the digital archive was ready, which Sweeney said the paper has accessed successfully. Significantly, Sweeney also said the Strib never parted with its vast trove of negatives. 

While Rogers’ standard deal with other papers has been for him to retain the originals — some papers’ classic pre-1960s sports photos have appeared on eBay — Yaeger added that as far he knows, the Strib has had everything it originally packed off with Rogers returned to it, “although I can’t say if we’ve got 100 percent of it back.”

Rogers’ pitch made sense to cash-­strapped papers looking at literally thousands of employee hours to scan and organize what were sometimes a 100 years' worth of photos. And while the idea of turning photo archives over to, say, a local historical society sounds nice, in reality none of them has the staff or technical resources to do the work Rogers promised to do.

In a 2009 interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal, shortly after signing his deal for the Sun­Times’ archive, Rogers said, “We're at liberty to do whatever we want to with those (original photos and negatives). When we hand (the newspapers) the digital product back and they start leasing these things to the public and making posters or whatever they're going to do, that's 100 percent [profit for] them.”

John Rogers
Brian Chilson/Arkansas Times
John Rogers

“The papers always wonder what’s the catch,” he continued. “‘You’re going to give us lots of money and you’re going to digitize it for free, which costs millions of dollars? What do you get?’ We get the photos. They don’t get why someone would care about old photos.”

One source with knowledge of the PiPress situation estimated that that paper’s photo archive might contain “as many as 1.5 million images. The Star Tribune’s could be closer to 3.5 million. Altogether, with every paper he’s done a deal with, we may be talking as much as 200 million images.”

Down in Arkansas, the best coverage of the Rogers operation has come from George Waldon at Arkansas Business. (Alas, there’s a paywall on his stuff.) “We haven’t seen the actual contracts, he says, “and each could be different. But the standard deal seems to have been that Rogers takes all the material, scans it and provides digital copies but retains the original prints and negatives to sell as he chooses.”

Until the FBI’s raid, the material was stored in “a big, pretty posh, climate-­controlled warehouse out in the [Little Rock] suburbs,” said Waldon. The court-­appointed receiver (who did not return a call for comment) now has control of what’s still in the building. Where the operation once had nearly 100 employees, Waldon says the staff has been boiled down to a maintenance crew of less than 10.

“We always kind of wondered about him,” says Waldon, “ever since he first popped up with that Honus Wagner card.” In 2008, Rogers, then 38, bought one of the most sought-­after baseball cards in the world, a T206 Honus Wagner card, for $1.62 million. “No one had heard much about him until then,” said Waldon. “But then he started buying up all these newspaper archives and living pretty large. At one point he had a penthouse overlooking Central Park in New York — although that was a lease deal.”

One rumor had Rogers out­sourcing some of the archiving work to India. But no one can confirm that. He has, however, closed deals with newspapers in Australia and New Zealand, and a news group from down under, Fairfax Media, has already gone to court against Rogers.

“The fate of an invaluable archive of up to 8 million historic New Zealand newspaper photographs and negatives is before the courts in Little Rock, Arkansas,” Brian Rudman of The New Zealand Herald writes. “Fairfax Media is endeavouring to recover the photo archives of 72 New Zealand newspapers dating back to the 19th century, along with those of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Melbourne Age, and other Australian newspapers. In May 2013, the Australian media empire did a deal with Rogers Photo Archive (RPA), Little Rock, to sell the photos, in return for the United States firm digitally copying them, and providing digital files back to New Zealand and Australia. RPA is now in receivership and faces at least 10 lawsuits totalling more than $94 million.”

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For anyone interested in the

For anyone interested in the history of Minneapolis, or St. Paul, or the state of Minnesota for that matter, for our local newspapers to have sold this patrimony to a guy who turns out may be a huge charlatan is astonishing.

The Star Tribune wanted the money this guy paid the paper's (non-Minneapolis) owners, at the time, and sent away more than a hundred years-worth of historic photographs. All the originals, from the current Strib and all its predecessors. Now, they may have digital files for most of what they sent away. But, they took the bait of immediate money (oh! for the days when local newspapers were owned and run by people with some local pride!).

This article says that there is nowhere in Minnesota that could have taken the Star Tribune's and Pioneer Press's photos and organized and scanned them. Phooey! The Minnesota Historical Society could handle it, and does handle similar archives all the time. But the MNHS wouldn't have paid for those photographs. All they would have done is treated them with historians' care and respect, and provided access to them to the public (an unsung glory of Minnesota: the Historical Society and its policies).

Shame on the Star Tribune! Shame.

The Minnesota Historical Society is a local treasure !!

But you have to GO THERE and dig around a little to comprehend just how valuable it is.

Star Tribune, Pioneer Press negatives are already public

The Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press have already turned over their photo negatives to the Minnesota Historical Society, where anyone can go through them and order prints or scans. They cover a period from 1936 through 1987. Given that they're filed by date, not by subject, it can be challenging to find the images you're seeking, but they are an incredible resource that includes millions of published and unpublished images. They are maintained and made available by a professional archive.

The finding aid is here: http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/sv000039.xml

James Shiffer, watchdog and data editor, Star Tribune

Archives

A couple of years ago I went to the Strib looking for archived photos of Fort Snelling. We're working to restore the place and the photos would help show what the post looked like in its glory as well as tell the stories of the people who lived and worked there.

The Strib had a few dozen photos in stock, but that was it. When I chatted with the archivists I was told they all went to the Historical Society years ago. At the time I thought this was odd as I've been through MNHS' archives with a fine toothed comb, looking at anything and everything Fort Snelling related. They have a lot of photos, but from the newspaper there might be a few hundred, tops. Back in the day the fort was a big deal around town and there should have been thousands (or tens of thousands) of photos in the files.

It's a shame that the state's family photo album has been sold down the river to some dealer who just wants to sell them off to the highest bidder. That material is lost to the state and can never be brought back intact.

I have been following this story for five years - please read

I have been following this story for five years and have been in vain trying to warn newspapers, fellow photographers and journalist about Rogers. It is not just him, there are three other liquidators using his same business plan:

A newspaper gives away their analog photo archive in exchange for scanned copies. These photos then are primarily sold on eBay as rare collectibles. But Rogers has also been seling these images in other ways.

Another company is Masterpiece Marketing LLC which has been selling off the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and other papers. Now they are shutting down their eBay Tribune operations on April 23, 2015.

What is so tragic about all this, the newspapers lured by these basic memorabilia dealers is that digital archives are very short lived. Analog is much more archival.

In my posts two years ago about all this:

June 1, 2013:

Chicago Sun TImes liquidating photo archive on eBay since 2010:

As many are aware, this week the Chicago Sun-Times fired their entire photo staff in order to cut corners. They will be replaced by social media and reporters using smart phone.

But there is something else going on behind the scenes with the Chicago Sun-Times and their photography department that many do not know about. That is, for the past four years, they have been liquidating their historic photo print archive on eBay, with most photos being sold in the $20-$35 range.

This was initiated by a collectibles dealer who convinced the Sun Times that if they traded their analog archive over to him, the CST would in return receive digital copies, plus some cash. The Sun-Times jumped at this with the belief a digital library would be a great opportunity.

What their bean counters are not aware of, the cost of maintaining a digital archive is enormous in the long run. The costs of updating it, migrating it to future OS systems and software, as well as data storage hardware that needs replacing every five years or so, will put them at a loss. Too many uniformed people think that once an analog photograph is digitized, it is saved for eternity. The truth is exactly the opposite. Analog is still far more archival than digital, period.

This new business model of trading photo archives to sports memorabilia and collectibles dealers is not just unique to the Chicago Sun-Times. It is also taking place with the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Seattle Times, Boston Globe, Sporting News, Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the Allentown Morning Call, to name a few. Many more dailies will follow this model.

You can go on eBay, and at any given time see over a million press prints up for sale for $10-$35. Many of these are prints low quality, poor condition prints. A good number of as well, are prints that were supposed to be returned to freelancers, photo agencies, and press agents.

Magnum Photos is one of the agencies who threatened legal action to stop the Chicago Sun-Times from selling their press prints. But there are still many photographers who don't have a clue their prints, which are their property, being sold eBay. Even if they do, hiring a lawyer to negotiate a return will be needed.

Lastly, as these prints are flooding the vintage photo market, many long time photo dealers and galleries are being affected due to drastic drops in the price for photojournalism and historic images.

Some of the eBay sellers liquidating press prints are:

- argenta-images03, argenta-images04, argenta-images05, argenta-images06 (all John Rogers Archive).

- tribunephotos (actually Masterpeice Marketing LLC)

- historicimages-store

---------

Newspaper archive original negatives are also being sold on eBay. In addition to the million plus press prints offered on eBay at any given time, there are a couple hundred thousand negatives for sale too.

The three main liquidators selling off prints and negs on eBay are:

John Rogers Archivehttp://argentaarchive.com/publication-collections.htmlOriginally a sports memorabilia dealer.

- Chicago Sun Times
- Chicago Daily News
- Boston Herald
- The Denver Post
- Denver Evening Post
- The Detroit News
- Detroit Times
- Detroit Journal
- Detroit Tribune
- Detroit Free Press
- Sport Magazine
- Sporting News
- St. Petersburg Times
- Seattle Times

Ebay seller names:

lexibell, argenta-images, argenta-images02, argenta-images03, argenta-images04, argenta-images05 (now all defunct seller names as of 2015)

-------

Masterpiece Marketing LLC (http://www.mmgarchives.com)

(Facebook too). Originally a coin, stamp, comic book and movie poster dealer.

- Chicago Tribune
- Baltimore Sun
- Allentown Morning Call
- Memphis Commercial Appeal
- Philadelphia Tribune
- Culver Pictures
- Bain News Service

Ebay seller names:- tribunephotos, jp-themint, mmgarchives

-------

HistoricImageshttp://www.historicimages.com/category_s/2146.htm(on Facebook too)

- Keystone Press Agency

They do no list the newspaper archives they are selling. But they do state: "Historic Images has the largest collection of original newspaper photos and negatives ever offered to the public".

Ebay seller names:

historicimages-store (main), historicimages01, historicimages02, historicimages03, historicimages04, historicimages05, historicimages06, historicimages-gallery.

-------
There are a handful of smaller liquuidators, but the above three are the major players.

While you make some salient

While you make some salient points on the cost of a digital archive, that cost is falling almost daily, and perhaps more importantly, these publications are no longer set up to use anything that isn't digitized, so that if it isn't digitized, it isn't getting used. In fact, if it isn't digitized with keyword metadata added, no one even knows what's in the archive, except, possibly, the archivist and maybe a graphic artist who has been around for a while. So if you aren't digitizing, you're just paying to store lots of boxes of who knows what.

Digital archives

Digital archives are fleeting.

No matter what, over the years they will be difficult to maintain and keep current over and over again. It will come down to finances, technological advances, human man power and just plain practibility to keep going.

Analog, on the other hand will always be the best way to preserve history. If you do not think so, well that is just an uneducated guess. Prints can always be kept over the years. But a hard drive, CD, DVD, or even the touted cloud have already proven to be unreliable. Do your research before making an assumption as you do not know what you are talking about.

If an archive is collecting dust as you say, at least survival is guaranteed far longer than the day to day and fast changing mind sets of trendy digital brains.

I disagree with your points

I disagree with your points concerning the cost and difficulty of managing a digital archive. Your points are valid should the newspaper wish to perform these tasks themselves. In todays age, services such as Amazon AWS and others offer highly redundant cloud storage for a couple of pennies per gig of data. Those providers handle all the storage infrastructure and maintanance. This includes replication of data across multiple locations tfor rendundacy. Perhaps 5-10 years ago maintaining a digital archive would be expensive, but that's hardly the case today.

Steve

Digital Archives

I tend to disagree with the comments concerning high costs with maintaining a digitial archive. This would have been true 5 or 6 years ago, or if the Newspaper wished to do this themselves. In today's day and age with public cloud providers, maintaing digital storage is a non issue. Cloud providers such as Amazon offer storage for mere pennies per gig. They manage and maintain all of the storage infrastructure and replication of the data to multiple locations for redundancy. If you were extremely paranoid, one could use two different cloud providers.

Steve

Red Alert Media Matrix, the

Red Alert Media Matrix, the group trying to takeover the Rogers Photo Archives operations and assets, has stated that they have no intention of ever selling the prints and to do all the digitizing in Atlanta. Other than licensing the images, they claim to have another plan to monetize the photos. But this group appears to be having a fight with the court receiver. Maybe the receiver or his lawyers have one of those low-dollar Ebay scavengers waiting in the wings to get their hands on the prints of history.

A Dying Industry Pawns the Silver....

Torin Boyd is right on that analog is more stable than digital, but digital has to be a component now in any preservation program. Analog, even properly stored, will eventually decay. Digitization gives you another tool in the process of long-term preservation. It goes without saying that such considerations did not figure into the StarTribune's decision to go with this huckster.

In their desperation to generate additional revenue, the StarTribune may have made two errors. The first one, pointed out by Boyd, is the incredibly widespread notion that digitization obviates retention of the original. "Decluttering" advice-givers routinely offer this nonsense. Why keep those boxes of Grandma's letters when you can scan them and toss all that paper. Needless to say, those paper letters will be around about a century or more after those jpg versions have become unreadable, obsolete, corrupted, etc.

The second error is the defense of a business guarding its assets. "We're a business," the line usually goes. "We're here to make money, not run a museum." This argument dates back to William Vanderbilt's "the public be damned!" and the argument that business are about turning a profit, and not providing a public good. But to argue that any "public good" is a mere byproduct of running an enterprise to make money calls into question both their honesty and morality. The StarTribune company has made much of their service and obligation to the public over their many long years of existence. The long and highly detailed record of the life of the community reflected in this photo archive is a major part of that. Playing the "we're a business" card in this instance can only be seen as dishonest or highly cynical.

Connie Sullivan is correct that the state Historical Society could have probably accepted this collection. Both the MNHS and the Hennepin County Library has received large donations of portions of the Star and Tribune company's photo collections in the past. But the digitization process is slow and MNHS may have been unable to turn around fast enough to suit the StarTribune's needs.

The most heartening line in Lambert's story, however, is that the StarTribune appears to still have the original negatives. Negatives are the TRUE originals, as prints are made from them. If this is true, we still have the opportunity to preserve the original analogs.

A Dying Industry Pawns the Silver....

Very well said. Yours should have been the headline of the actual article. I only give a thread of care about the working of the swindler in question; I care is about what system let these state assets out the door and how to reel in the pieces now.