The United States in the 19th century… A nation finding its footing in the world and figuring itself out as well. The dominant form of news in this young nation was through newspapers, large papers dominate the historical narrative and records, but what about the smaller, regional newspapers that dotted the American lifestyle from Atlantic to Pacific? What can they tell us about the area they are being printed and read in? Why are they overlooked by historians, and should we be paying attention to them more?
Cameron Blevins, a then PhD student at Sanford University, wanted to delve deeper into these local papers. However, the layout of these papers was much different from the major papers in the big cities of America. There was hardly a murder or other eye catching story drawing the reader in further. These local papers were mostly covered in weather reports, freight tables, railroad schedules, commodity prices, and classified ads. As historians, our eyes are not naturally drawn to those seemingly mundane sections of the newspaper. We are looking for the political scandals, juicy editorials, or the eye catching story that would provide the perfect quote for our research papers.
Blevins was interested in these boring sections of the newspaper. However, he did not fancy sitting down and reading through hundreds upon hundreds of copies to conduct his research. So, he put his computer to work and did a text analysis of The Huston Daily Post. He wrote an article, “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Huston”. He set out to see how these regional newspapers shaped the world of their readers by analyzing how often certain places, names, or events occurred over time in The Huston Daily Post. His findings were quite surprising.
Since computers never get tired, Blevins was able to search through WAY more papers than he would have if he were doing this research “by hand” if you will. By using the power of digital resources, Blevins was able to find that this paper really stayed away from national stories. Rather, it focused on local issues in and around Huston or the state of Texas. However, when the paper did print a larger story, it did so focusing on the Midwest and its large cities rather than on Huston’s southern neighbors. That find would have been almost impossible to track had it not been for the digital text analysis done by Blevins.
The use of a digital component in Blevins’ research unearthed a hidden regional and local geography that had been tucked away in darkness in these smaller papers. Digital aspects of historical research are incredibly useful to everyone, not just researchers. Blevins put his article and research online to show that research and knowledge dies not have to be hidden away in academic journals that require a membership. He has proven that digital text analysis has a place in research and that the internet has a place in distributing that research