Exploring the nature of news through a digital archive

In thinking about how to introduce digital media and tools into the mass communication history course I teach at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, I have decided to develop an assignment around The Prescott Paraclete, the first newspaper published in Pierce County. Here I want to briefly explore how this will be important to teaching students.

One of the essential lessons in the course is how the nature of news has changed. Today when teaching journalistic thinking, we train students to internalize a set of elements that they can use to determine whether something is newsworthy. In one version, there are six elements including conflict, impact, novelty, prominence, proximity, and timeliness.1 Any one of these may provide enough reason to cover a story, but the more the better. For example, if the university proposes to raise tuition come fall semester, that’s timely information that affects all students enrolled there. A reporter or editor for the local newspaper would recognize that the story has timeliness, impact, and proximity. If students at the university object to the tuition increase, then conflict also would come into play, making the story even more newsworthy.

However, this way of thinking is a product of the commercialization of news beginning in the 19th century and the professionalization of journalism in the 20th century, coupled with the development of journalism as a course of study in higher education. How did Charles E. Young, the 20-something editor and publisher of the Prescott paper, understand news? How did readers of the Paraclete understand it?

Because we have digitized copies of the Paraclete available through a commercial database (NewspaperARCHIVE), students would be able to explore the newspaper and raise questions about its coverage. They might be surprised that instead of bylined news stories focused on crime or politics, they would find the front page of the Paraclete featured advertising for local businesses, a poem, and a short story. Having access to other newspapers of the period available through the same database, students could compare the Paraclete with its contemporaries to see if the Prescott newspaper was an anomaly or if it was typical for the period. They might also explore whether the size of the community made a difference in the type of news coverage.

This sort of exploration could be accomplished without a digital archive, but it would require going to the closest repositories that have physical copies of the Paraclete and other papers from the period. The digital archive makes it easier to gain access to the artifacts, and therefore the challenge of research just a bit less daunting. Students also could explore newspapers from New York, which is where Young was born, to see if they could find similar content that might explain what influenced the editor.

Ideally, students also could use something like Voyant Tools to perform textual analysis. Unfortunately, the optical character recognition performed on The Prescott Paraclete is less than optimal. Still, given time, the software could be introduced to students to at least get them to think about the possibilities the tool offers their research.

1. See, for example, Brian Brooks et al., News Reporting & Writing, 5th ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).