Did newspapers make the west, or did the west make newspapers? This is one of the questions that drives Geoff McGhee and his colleagues at The Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford. McGhee is part of a team of scholars, students, and journalists that is chronicling the state of the rural west, and one of their latest projects in that effort is to examine that region’s past through the lens of the American newspaper.
The first step in this ink-stained inquiry was to turn a Library of Congress database of more than 140,000 newspapers, starting with the very first, Publick Occurences, which appeared in Boston in 1690, into an interactive map. “We wanted to get a sense of where media was at different points in time,” says McGhee, who has worked on multimedia teams at The New York Times and ABC News.
The map shows not only where the various papers were, but also when they existed. Pull the toggle along the timeline at the top, and watch the clusters of newspapers—and the migration of settlers—bloom across the new American West.
Some papers emerged because a critical mass of people has settled in a given place and they wanted to hear about local happenings. Other times it worked in the opposite direction, with local governments lobbying for newspapers, not only to legitimize their communities but also to entice those back east to move there.
It’s not just the migration west that is illuminated by this map and the lengthy accompanying analysis. There also are stories that describe how the presence of media can reflect the ebb and flow of American history. Take, for example, the maps below that reflect the expansion and contraction of German-language newspapers in America:
In Map 1, from the year 1892, German identity was still a source of pride, as evidenced by the many newspapers (marked in orange) catering to communities of German immigrants.
As German heritage is stigmatized with the rise of fascism, the orange dots start to disappear, shown in Map 2, from the year 1940.
In Map 3, the German-language publications start to reappear between 1943 and 1945, but not because America’s ill will toward Germans had eased. A closer look shows that the new papers are concentrated around places with the prefix “Fort” or “Camp” in the title, indicating that they are popping up around POW camps.
As these POW camps start to disappear around 1947, so do their newspapers, as evidenced by Map 4.
“It’s like a smoke signal. It’s like a sign of life, a sign of the existence of a community that is communicating with itself and trying to establish its identity, whether that be immigrants or detainees,” says McGhee.
Data visualization makes these subtle observations easier to detect. By taking a huge amount of data, more than any one person could possibly absorb, and organizing it in a way that is image-based, journalists and academics alike can find patterns that spur future research and story ideas. Recently, Big Browser, a blog on France’s Le Monde used the map to publish a story about French language newspapers in Louisiana during the 1800’s.
Since this kind of material is so time-consuming to produce, it’s not at the top of a news organization’s agenda, which is why Geoff and his colleagues are reaching out to media organizations, for both distribution and collaboration. “Our prospective partners are the people who will bring the audience to this work,” says McGhee. He says they have started to work with a few magazines and some regional newspapers, but wouldn’t say too much about that at this time.
“We’re trying to come up with an alternate model of newsgathering and publication that brings in history and university scholarship, and were trying to see if there is an audience for this,” says McGhee. As part of the center’s research on the American rural west, they reported on the current state of rural newspapers, and the results were quite surprising. Small town newspapers are often doing better than their national counterparts. The center than offered this story for publication to a bunch of western media outlets, and it was picked up by High Country News, the New West, and the Daily Yonder.
McGhee says the next step in the project is to use data-mining techniques to speed-read newspaper archives and identify themes in the news through time. “Data visualization is for exploration as much as it is for explanation or storytelling,” he says.