The Growth of Newspapers Across the United States

| November 4, 2011

At a time when debates about the future of news, changes in press economics and new multimedia and mobile technologies are proliferating, it’s easy to forget that newspapers have been (and are still) pretty ubiquitous across the United States. And perhaps especially because of these very debates, it’s worth taking a look at the history of American newspapers.

The Project

In order to do just that, Stanford University’s Rural West Initiative at the Bill Lane Center for the American West plotted the directory of U.S. newspaper titles compiled by the Library of Congress Chronicling America collection (nearly 140,000 publications) on a mapped timeline of the U.S. The data was collected from NASA (urban population estimates) and state-level libraries ¬†and scholarly institutions which actively collect, scan and catalogue American newspapers and then send records to the Library of Congress for aggregation in its newspaper directory. For cases in which publication start and end dates are uncertain, they calculated the minimum run dates of publications based on the dates within which copies were catalogued. (The cataloguing process has yet to be improved upon.)

The outcome is a pretty fantastic interactive mapped timeline entitled “The Growth of Newspapers Across the U.S.: 1690-2011,” with a clickable timeline that maps the locations and quantities of newspapers from each year. Scrolling over any city with the mouse names the city and all its publications, with click-through links to the Library of Congress page for each. On the right is a panel in which a short anecdote or history is given for the year, followed by two filter options: language and publication frequency.

What It Really Means

Accompanying the visualization are two essays from the Rural West Initiative on the same subject–one a history entitled “Did the West Make Newspapers, or Did Newspapers Make the West?” and the other an assessment of the current situation in the industry entitled “Rural Newspapers Doing Better Than Their City Counterparts.” Taken together, the essays and graphic are quite an education in themselves and effectively shed light on an important fact (excerpted from the first essay):

It is more than a little ironic that small-town papers have been thriving by practicing what the mainstream media are now preaching,” writes the broadcast journalist and USC professor Judy Muller in her new book…”‘Hyper-localism,’ ‘Citizen Journalism,’ ‘Advocacy Journalism’ – these are some of the latest buzzwords of the profession But the concepts, without the fancy names, have been around for ages in small-town newspapers.”

Some say the relationship between local papers and readers is missing from mainstream journalism and therefore, local journalism is of utmost importance. The project is interesting because that claim holds much more clout when a viewer is actually seeing a map of the local papers who do still share this sort of intimacy with their communities and moreover, is able to access details about each paper through links to the LOC archive.

Imagine a similar combination of visualized data and writing to teach other histories in or out of the classroom. In many cases, students may not be impacted by reading dates or numbers of this sort, but conveying them in an artistic and interactive way immediately changes the game. Perhaps, most importantly, students would be more excited and inclined to engage in critical thinking exercises that link current affairs with history, when they can “see” both.