The Growth of US Newspapers, 1690-2011 from Geoff McGhee on Vimeo.

This animation is taken from the interactive data visualization of the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” directory of US newspapers. It shows all newspapers in all languages in the US from 1690 to 2011. View the full visualization at Created by the Rural West Initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University. Visualization by Dan Chang, Krissy Clark, Yuankai Ge, Geoff McGhee, Yinfeng Qin and Jason Wang.

What works

This visualization of the rise and fall of newspapers in America is interactive and not to be missed. Click over to the interactive visualization (or open it in a new window) and then come back and read commentary. The folks at Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West have used Library of Congress records to create what they say, “would be fairer to call a “database” visualization than an omniscient creator’s-eye view of the growth of American newspapers”.

The trick with any kind of database visualization is that there is often way more information in the database than can comfortably fit in the first graphic representation that comes to mind. The folks at Stanford have done a masterful job.

Here are all of the variables I could pick out that are built into this graphic without overwhelming viewers with too much information:

  • Time | They embed a timeline at the top and turn the whole image into snapshots across time. The time variable is critical to their message.
  • Location of newspapers | They used a map with dots on it to show where these newspapers were being written. I am not always a fan of maps, but in this case, they needed to use a map because another main part of their message is the geographical distribution of newspapers, especially in the American West.
  • Number of newspapers per city | Each city is marked with a dot that grows and shrinks over time as the number of newspapers in that location grows and shrinks.
  • Language in which newspapers were written | The color of the dots correspond to one of seven languages, plus an 8th color for “other” languages. There is also a gray dot that represents all of the newspapers of any language. The languages and the pan-language grey dot can be turned on an off so that it is possible to see, for instance, just the changes in Spanish language newspapers.
  • Publication frequency | This is a filter option that allows users to see only daily or only weekly/biweekly or only monthly+ publications.
  • Textual description | There is a narrative about newspapers that is important to the authors as well as to us as readers/viewers trying to understand this massive amount of data. They chose to use 3-4 sentences to describe major changes every 10 years or so, less often before 1900. I found this to be the right amount of text – brief enough so that it didn’t overshadow the infographic, but dense enough so that it contained substantive material. Instead of trying to display major historical events on the map somehow, they use the text to mention things like the Civil War and Great Depression which allows them to describe the impact of these events on newspapers in particular.
  • Actual titles of newspapers by city | If users click on a particular city at a given moment in the timeline, they can see a list of all the titles of the newspapers that were being printed at that place and time. The languages of the newspapers correspond to the color coding system for languages used throughout the graphic. If users want additional information about any of the titles, they can click on the title and be taken to the entry for that title in the Library of Congress database.

I couldn’t be more excited (or proud) of this project. [Full disclosure: I am not personally acquainted with anyone involved in the project.] Please go play around with it this weekend. Even if you are not interested in newspapers, it is impressive to see how they managed to create such a thorough graphic – a database visualized – without making it impenetrable.

More information about newspapers, the west, and rural America

For more on these issues, the team at Stanford has also released two written reports on this topic: Rural Newspapers Doing Better Than Their City Counterparts and did the West Make Newspapers or Did Newspapers Make the West?.


Bill Lane Center for the Study of the American West at Stanford University.

[Graphic: Data Visualization: Journalism’s Voyage West]

Library of Congress: Chronicling America Project