Research in Progress: Report to the American Journalism Historians Association 2019 Convention in Dallas
An opening plea
If this project interests you, let’s find ways to research similar questions together. I would love to form a team of researchers to take on parts of projects like these and research them collaboratively.
In this project, I’m exploring the role of newspapers in facilitating the flow of social capital by visualizing the diffusion of journalism infrastructure. Specifically, I aim to map the development of newspapers across what eventually became Colorado from the time settlers first rushed to the region during the 1859 gold rush through the end of the nineteenth century. I’m doing so through spatial analysis and interactive data visualization techniques that plot key traits of newspapers, which carried collections of information within and between frontier communities, alongside other infrastructure such as trails, telegraph wires, and mail service, across time. To do so, I’m using using a variety of primary sources, including newspaper directories, newspaper indexes, newspapers themselves, preexistent maps, and community histories. I think this is a first-of-its-kind project in our field.
There are three primary purposes driving this study. First, it lays the groundwork for deeper investigation of the relationship between social capital theory and journalism (specifically, in this case, nineteenth century newspapering). This work is part of a research agenda that hypothesizes that the generation and facilitation of social capital within and among communities has been a significant function of American journalism throughout its history. Defined briefly, social capital can be thought of as the synergistic result of a social network—tangible and intangible resources that result from a web of connected individuals.[i] Developing a means of mapping news infrastructure will aid in the study of the flow of capital among communities. This leads to a second purpose: to use spatial analysis techniques that are rarely utilized by other journalism historians with a goal of spurring innovative research in our field.[ii] Finally, this project is a first step toward a conceptual framework that examines media—in this case, newspapers—as infrastructure that facilitate both the generation and movement of various forms of capital to and through themselves.
This project’s end products will center on an interactive map of nineteenth-century Colorado. Data will be input for each newspaper that existed in the territory from the initial gold rush in 1859 through 1899. For each newspaper, additional characteristics will be input as frequently as the data allow. These characteristics will include stated circulation, circulation relative to community population, and publication frequency. This data will be represented on the map along with other infrastructure as they developed across time, including trails, roads, railroads, post offices, telegraph lines, and express mail services. Users will be able to view the development of these various forms of infrastructure, including news infrastructure, year-by-year. In the vernacular of social capital theory, it will allow them 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.[iii]
This research promises a great deal to journalism historians. Most importantly, it offers to draw an immensely promising academic theory, that being social capital theory, into the consciousness of other researchers. It also will add sophistication to our understanding of frontier journalism, particularly in relation to the often-cited “booster” role of frontier newspapers. Finally, it presents an opportunity to make relevant to journalism historians both spatial analysis and a data visualization technique common to historians in other fields—mapping—that may help other scholars find new ways to make their research relevant to audiences.
When completed, the project will include the following kinds of data:
Circulation, by year (limited data is available)
Total papers per location, by year
Total papers per county, by year
Donald Oehlerts, Guide to Colorado Newspapers, 1859–1963, 1964
Chronicling America (only used for discrepancies in Oehlerts)
Ayer and Rowell newspaper directories for circulations
The newspapers themselves for circulations
Population, by year
Perry Eberhart, Guide to Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps, 1970
Robert Brown, Ghost Towns of the Colorado Rockies, 2006
Post offices at locations, by year
Publications (directories and indexes) of the USPS
Routes, by year
Tivis Wilkins, Colorado Railroads: Chronological Development, 1974
Station locations, by year
Routes, by year
None currently identified
Office locations, by year
Telegraph routes, by year
Western Union directories (only one year found so far)
Trails and roads
Route type (trail, road, etc.)
Routes, by year
Routes identified on maps
Other sources may be identified
The images themselves
Online: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
Denver Public Library Western History Collection
Exploratory phase: Now Complete
Spatial analysis entirely new to me (beyond using a map to get from point A to B), and I have found the learning curve steep. As such, I consider the first two months of research on this project, during which I familiarized myself with spatial analysis and visualization software as well as sought out, collected, and mapped some data, to have been exploratory. I began by extracting basic newspaper data from directories and compiling it in a database, which I then imported into ArcMap, a GIS application, for visualization and analysis. After learning how to manipulate within the program the data collected to that point, I began looking for sources of other forms of data. Sensing the growing complexity of the project, I paused to organize the project’s data collection protocol into a concrete plan for moving forward.
I considered the exploratory phase of the project completed by mid-September and adopted the following plan to guide the project through the data collection stage:
Create a Master Database to contain all project data
Add all credible data collected during the exploratory phase to the Master Database
Collect additional data in the following order
Newspaper names, locations, frequencies, and dates
Valid coordinates for all newspaper locations
Data from all or most categories within one data-rich year for AJHA demo
Pursue any incomplete data for newspapers, post offices, or railroads
Telegraph lines and offices
Pony express routes and stations
Create Master Map to visualize data, then work in the following order
Find and add additional historical maps
Identify valid coordinates for any remaining locations
Pursue population data for locations
If population data is available, calculate new fields: circulation per capita by year AND papers in city per capita by year
Add trails and roads from maps
Publish the map online
Begin data analysis and reporting through conference presentations and journal articles
I have set an admittedly ambitious deadline of Nov. 1, 2019 for completion of the data collection phase of this research. Additional data may be added beyond that date, but I expect to have the above steps completed by then and to be able to begin analysis at that time. This would allow for the first results of this research to become available around the end of the year.
It’s tough to tell what, exactly, the products that come out of this project will consist of. A few are clear. First, the completed interactive map will be made available online to fulfil the public history objective of this requirement. Second, the database of Colorado place names being extracted from USPS directories is being made available online as a second public history product, the goal being to provide credible information about Colorado ghost towns of use to other professional and amateur historians. Third, the individual layers that comprise the finished map will be of use to other spatial historians seeking data about this project’s component types of infrastructure (the rail network, in particular, will be helpful to others). And fourth, I’ll be writing a series of papers based on this dataset. At this point, I envision at least two: One focused tightly on applying spatial analysis to interrogate the development of the state’s information infrastructure (and, naturally, especially its newspapers), and a second that applies the findings of the first to social capital theory to better understand the relationship between information infrastructure and the creation and maintenance of bridging and bonding social capital.
[i] Foundational texts on social capital theory include James S. Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1990), 300–321; Ronald S. Burt, Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
[ii] Other historians are taking advantage of spatial analysis. They’re even using it to answer questions of great interest to media historians. For an overview of spatial history, see Richard White, “What is Spatial History,” a working paper published by Stanford University’s Spatial History Lab (Feb. 1, 2010), https://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29&project_id=. See also Cameron Blevins, “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space,” an essay accompanying Blevins’s research in the Journal of American History that analyzed the inclusion of specific places in nineteenth century Texas newspapers. The online essay is available at http://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=93.
[iii] Putnam, Bowling Alone, 22.