Project introduction

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This blog shares information about my ongoing research into the connection between social capital and newspapering in the context of frontier Colorado’s media infrastructure.

First, a bit about the project. I’m exploring the role of newspapers in facilitating the flow of social capital by visualizing the diffusion of journalism infrastructure in Colorado. Specifically, I want to map the development of newspapers across what eventually became Colorado Territory from the time settlers first rushed to the region in the 1859 gold rush through statehood in 1876 (and likely, eventually, through the end of the century). I’m doing so using data viz methods that plot key traits of newspapers, which carried collections of information within and between frontier communities, alongside other infrastructure such as wagon trails, telegraph wires, and mail service, across time. I’m doing so using newspaper directories and indexes, the papers themselves, preexistent maps, and community histories.

I’m doing this for three reasons. First, I’m trying to lay the groundwork for deeper investigation of the relationship between social capital theory and journalism, as I hypothesize that the generation and facilitation of social capital within and among communities has been a significant function of American journalism throughout its history. If I can map frontier Colorado’s newspaper infrastructure, doing so will help us study the flow of capital among communities.

This leads to a second reason: to play with techniques for visualizing historical data. It seems crazy to me that in my time as a historian I’ve never seen a peer, either at a conference or otherwise, make a map, let alone an interactive one. Maps are important! Maps help us understand tricky material by transforming data into something tangible. We should be making more of them for ourselves and our peers.

Finally, I’m trying to further the understudied conceptual framework that examines media—in my case, newspapers—as infrastructure.

So I’m making an interactive map. I’m including data for each known newspaper and am plugging in characteristics as frequently as the data allow. These characteristics will include stated circulation, circulation relative to community population, publication frequency, and access to news wire services. As the project progresses, I hope to represent this information visually along with other infrastructure as they developed across time, including wagon trails, roads, railroads, post offices, telegraph lines, and express mail service. We will then be able to view the development of these various forms of infrastructure year-by-year, allowing us to see the spread of both bonding infrastructure, represented by the information-spreading capacity of newspapers within a community, and bridging infrastructure, represented by the various means and speeds by which newspapers could travel between communities.

Ken Ward