Tag Archives: newspapers

On Newspapers and Being Human

Last week, an opinion piece appeared in the New York Times, arguing that the advent of algorithmically derived human-readable content may be destroying our humanity, as the lines between technology and humanity blur. A particular target in this article is the advent of “robo-journalism,” or the use of algorithms to write copy for the news. 1 The author cites a study that alleges that “90 percent of news could be algorithmically generated by the mid-2020s, much of it without human intervention.” The obvious rebuttal to this statement is that algorithms are written by real human beings, which means that there are human interventions in every piece of algorithmically derived text. But statements like these also imply an individualism that simply does not match the historical tradition of how newspapers are created. 2

In the nineteenth century, algorithms didn’t write texts, but neither did each newspaper’s staff write its own copy with personal attention to each article. Instead, newspapers borrowed texts from each other—no one would ever have expected individualized copy for news stories. 3 Newspapers were amalgams of texts from a variety of sources, cobbled together by editors who did more with scissors than with a pen (and they often described themselves this way). Continue reading On Newspapers and Being Human


  1. The article also decries other types of algorithmically derived texts, but the case for computer-generated creative fiction or poetry is fairly well argued by people such as Mark Sample, and is not an argument that I have anything new to add to.
  2. This post is based on my research for the Viral Texts project at Northeastern University.
  3. In 1844, the New York Daily Tribune published a humorous story illustrating exactly the opposite, in fact—some readers preferred a less human touch.

Editor Vignette: Edward E. Cross

In my work on Viral Texts, I run across a host of interesting people, including editors whose lives are just as interesting as the stories they publish. To highlight some of these interesting people, I’m writing short posts about them as I research their papers. This first vignette is about the first editor of the first newspaper published in Arizona, before Arizona was even a state. I write about him today on the 150th anniversary of his death.

Edward Ephraim Cross (1832-1863)

Edward Cross began his newspaper career at the age of 15, at the Coos Democrat, a paper in his native Lancaster, New Hampshire. He moved to Cincinnati in 1850, where he continued to work as a printer, now at the Cincinnati Times. 

Soon, Cross became a reporter for the Times, even becoming their Washington correspondent for a short time. But he invested in some mining operations in Arizona, and he moved out to Tubac, Arizona, in 1859. In Tubac, under the auspices of the Santa Rita Silver Mining Company, he began the first newspaper in Arizona, the Weekly Arizonian. Cross had strong political opinions, and those opinions often found their way into his newspaper. He was especially concerned with the need for Arizona to have its own government (separate from New Mexico), since he felt that the two territories had sufficiently different needs to also need different representation in the government. Cross was primarily concerned with Arizona politics, and it seems that in general, the newspaper was somewhat ambivalent about national politics.

Another of Cross’s goals as a newspaperman was to paint a picture of Arizona as it really was. Robert Grandchamp, a biographer of Cross, claimed that many of Cross’s editorials were not meant for Arizonians, but rather for people back East reading the Weekly Arizonian.[1. Grandchamp 59.] (If that’s true, it shows something about how editors themselves viewed reprint culture in the USA.) Just as with every territorial expansion, writers often embellished the benefits of the territorial life and downplayed its dangers. Cross disliked such idyllic portraits of Arizona, so his editorials featured the rough and difficult life of Arizonians.

This desire to portray the hard life in the territory brought Cross into contention with one Sylvester Mowry, a wealthy mine owner who also happened to represent the territory in Congress. Mowry had written some reports about the status of Arizona that Cross felt were too rosy, describing the land as highly fertile and the native Indians as of minimal concern. Cross decided to take on Mowry in the press. He didn’t publish his editorial in the Weekly Arizonian (possibly, he wanted better nationwide than he thought he’d get from the Arizonian), but rather in an Eastern newspaper, the States. A complicated dance of letters and replies ensued (Mowry was in Washington, Cross in Arizona–travel time was definitely an issue). 

Mowry realized that the only way to deal with Cross was direct confrontation, in Arizona. Upon his return to the territory, Mowry issued a challenge. Cross accepted the challenge and the duel was on.

Cross decided to make the duel interesting by choosing Burnside carbines as the weapons instead of standard dueling pistols. Though both men were purportedly good shots,[2. Grandchamp states that each man practiced the previous day; Cross shot up a cactus and Mowry a cottonwood tree.] after four rounds in which neither man hit the other, Mowry declared himself satisfied.

The issue might have continued to be contentious, despite published apologies from both parties, except that a week after the duel, Mowry bought the Weekly Arizonian from the Santa Rita Mining Company. Obviously, Cross would not remain the editor. The paper moved to Tucson and became a paper with stronger Democratic leanings.

Though Cross moved back to New Hampshire after losing the Weekly Arizonian, he remained concerned about Arizona politics and military affairs. He wrote repeatedly to the secretary of war about the situation in Arizona. The attachment Cross felt to Arizona is somewhat remarkable, considering that he lived in the territory for less than a year (he took on Mowry after only one month of residence!).

Later in 1860, Cross invested once again in a silver mine in Arizona, volunteering to travel to the mine as a scout. Though he supported Stephen Douglas for president, his political concerns were primarily local: when the Army left Arizona to deal with the fractious Southern states, Cross’s mining investment was sacked by Indians. After that loss, he left Arizona to serve briefly with the Mexican army of General Juarez.

When war broke out in America, Cross headed back to New Hampshire to command the Fifth New Hampshire Regiment of Volunteers. He served with distinction at many famous battles, including Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Chancellorsville, and he became known for his toughness on the battlefield.

In July 1863, the 5th New Hampshire was among the regiments that fought at Gettysburg. His brigade fought at the Wheatfield, where he was mortally wounded. He died of his wounds on July 3, 1863.

Monument to the 5th New Hampshire at Gettysburg National Battlefield Park CreativeCommons licensed photo by Flickr user BattlefieldPortraits.com
Monument to the 5th New Hampshire at Gettysburg National Battlefield Park
CreativeCommons licensed photo by Flickr user BattlefieldPortraits.com

You can read more about Edward Cross here:
Grandchamp, Robert. Colonel Edward E. Cross, New Hampshire Fighting Fifth: A Civil War Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.
Cross, Edward Ephraim. Stand Firm and Fire Low: The Civil War Writings of Colonel Edward E. CrossBoston: University Press of New England, 2003.

Harsh Words for a War (in 1812)

The War of 1812 had been going on for about six months when this list was published by the Federal Republican (reprinted in the Salem Gazette, December 29, 1812, which is where I found it). If this piece is no less vitriolic than some political rhetoric of the twenty-first century, at least it is much more succinct.

Reasons, not long, for believing the War will be Short.

1st. Because the army lacks men.
2d. Because the treasury lacks money.
3d. Men and money are the sinews of war.
4th. The navy lacks encouragement.
5th. Because the President lacks nerves.[1. James Madison]
6th. Because the secretary of state lacks head.[2. James Monroe]
7th. The secretary of the treasury lacks heart.[3. Albert Gallatin]
8th. The secretary of the navy lacks every thing.[4. Paul Hamilton. History has not been kind to Paul Hamilton, who is generally viewed as an incompetent and inefficient secretary.]
9th. Because the secretary of the war—is not.[5. This list was published in the two months during which James Monroe was acting as secretary of war, due to the resignation of William Eustis, who resigned in December 1812 after his lack of preparedness was blamed for the debacles with the army. The new secretary, appointed in February 1813, was no better than Eustis.]
10th. Because General Hull’s proclamation has failed.[6. In July 1812, General WIlliam Hull issued a proclamation to the residents of Upper Canada, assuming that they would side with the United States in this war and telling them that he did not need their assistance to defeat the British. Needless to say, this proclamation did not go over well, and Hull surrendered to the British at Detroit on August 16.]
11th. Because General Smyth’s two proclamations have failed.[7. General Alexander Smyth’s proclamations were to his own army, assuring them of their superiority and the ease with which the British army would be defeated. Unfortunately, Smyth did not adequately prepare his men or his materiel. These proclamations also gave the British advance knowledge of his planned attack.]
12th. Because both Hull and Smyth the fast friends of administration, the one is pronounced a traitor by his friends, and the other is known to be a recreant, and is denounced by his own army, who have offered a reward for his head.[8. Hull was the traitor, Smyth the recreant.]
13th. Because the people are too wise to pay taxes.
14th. Because administration is too weak and too cunning to lay them.
Lastly, and to conclude, because war requires men and money and brains and nerves and honesty—whence we conclude that either such an administration will rid us of the war, or the war soon rid us of such an administration.
Thus ends our war creed, and let all the people say

Documenting Change over Time with Simile Timeline

The NULab project that I’m working on right now involves documenting connections between newspapers in the nineteenth-century United States. So far, my work has been researching the history of each individual newspaper. It’s been an enlightening and entertaining process. (If you’re interested in one of the most entertaining stories I discovered, check out my Omeka exhibit for my digital humanities class.)

We’re pulling data from the Chronicling America website at the Library of Congress. The newspapers we have range from 1836 to 1860. We don’t have all the newspapers from that range, though. We’re adding new papers all the time. The data I’m working with right now is from the first batch of data.

One of the difficulties I encountered early into the process of research was the astonishing number of name changes each paper went through during its lifetime. To get a better sense of how many times and how often these name changes occurred, I decided to plot the changes on a timeline.

Based on a suggestion from Chuck Rybak, and armed with an excellent basic tutorial by Brian Croxall, I built my timeline using MIT Simile Timeline. I found data entry very easy using the timeline interface. (I don’t think the CSS is particularly beautiful; as I have time, I may try to make it nicer-looking.)

For many of the newspapers, the exact date of some changes is uncertain. Various sources disagree on dates, and some information is just not out there for me to find. To compensate for that difficulty, I marked each uncertain date as starting on January 1 of the year and noted the uncertainty in the comment.

The current timeline has another drawback: it can’t filter by newspaper. For some newspapers, it’s easy to tell which names are connected (for instance, it’s pretty easy to tell that the Sunbury American is connected to the Sunbury American and Shamokin Journal). It’s not so easy to see the link between papers such as the Salt River Journal, The Radical, and The Democratic Banner. I’d like to be able to filter the timeline so these connections are self-evident without reading the comments.

Here’s the final result, though as newspapers get added to our dataset, they’ll get added here too. You’ll notice, too, that my timeline spans more than 1836-1860. Though many of the newspapers exist past 1860, I decided to stop my investigations there because it wouldn’t be that helpful to our project. However, I decided to trace each paper back to its origin, if possible, as a way to get at the characteristics of the paper. For that reason, the start date for some newspapers is well before 1836.

If anyone has suggestions for how to improve this timeline, I would welcome them! Please leave me a comment.