- Michael L Bergonzi
Old News is the Same News, Two Centuries Later
Updated: 12 hours ago
By Michael L. Bergonzi
EDIT: Broadcast version was incorrect. The number of times Fate of the Apostles appeared in newspapers was not 500, but 110.
Newspapers in a shared world of information and technology is outdated. But they are by no means "worse" than current news organizations today, as many would have you believe. They're more alike than you may think.
Journalism in the the nineteenth century resembled something more akin to Reddit. News back then was more a forum for ideas, even ones that were factually wrong. It wasn't about reporting so much as political clout. During the United States' Civil War from 1861-1865, censorship of certain stories by Lincoln's administration was the norm rather than the exception.
Newspapers back then were aplenty. There was a newspaper for both political parties of the time and often times multiple ones in a city or town. After the war, their numbers dwindled not because of popularity but because of consolidation.
University of Illinois information sciences professor Ryan Cordell said a lot of newspapers were starting to be bought up by companies and combined together around the middle of the nineteenth century. 1876-77 for example showed a drop of over one thousand newspapers In that one year. The most significant drop in the century, based on the 500 newspapers and 2.7 million pages of those papers that Cordell and his team over at Viraltexts.org researched.
One similarity Cordell didn't expect between news back then and news today was the repetition of information across newspapers from different cities. Before the turn of the 20th century, according to Cordell, larger city newspapers became the transfer hub of information that would then distribute to local towns outside and even nearby states.
Listicles were also all over nineteenth century newspapers. These included articles such as Top 10 lists and astrology. One example is the Fate of the Apostles, which appeared at least 110 times across Cordell and team's sample size of different papers for 50 years, according to a 2015 Smithsonian article.
Tune in sometime in Late April/Early May to read a follow-up article focused on how stories of racial violence spread. Of Viral Texts received a Mellon grant to study.