Antebellum Data Journalism: Or, How Big Data Busted Abe Lincoln

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tags: journalism, Abe Lincoln, Data Journalism



Scott Klein is an Assistant Managing Editor. He directs a team of journalist programmers building interactive narratives such as Dollars for Docs and Losing Ground.

This story was prepared for the March 2014 conference, "Big Data Future," at Ohio State's Moritz College of Law, and will be published in I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, 10:2 (2015). For more information, see http://bigdatafuture.org.

It’s easy to think of data journalism as a modern invention. With all the hype, a casual reader might assume that it was invented sometime during the 2012 presidential campaign. Better-informed observers can push the start date back a few decades, noting with self-satisfaction that Philip Meyer did his pioneering work during the Detroit riots in the late 1960s. Some go back even further, archly telling the tale of Election Night 1952, when a UNIVAC computer used its thousands of vacuum tubes to predict the presidential election within four electoral votes.

But all of these estimates are wrong – in fact, they’re off by centuries. The real history of data journalism pre-dates newspapers, and traces the history of news itself. The earliest regularly published periodicals of the 17th century, little more than letters home from correspondents hired by international merchants to report on the business details and the court gossip of faraway cities, were data-rich reports.

Early 18th century newspapers were also rich with data. If it were ever in doubt that the unavoidable facts of human existence are death and taxes, early newspapers published tables of property tax liens and of mortality and its causes. Commodity prices and the contents of arriving ships — cargo and visiting dignitaries — were a regular and prominent feature of newspapers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Beyond business figures and population statistics, data was used in a wide variety of contexts. The very first issue of the Manchester Guardian on May 5, 1821 contains on the last of its four pages a large table showing that the real number of students in church schools far exceeded the estimates of the student population made by proponents of education reform. 

Data was also used, as it is today, as both the input to and the output of investigative exposés. This is the story of one such investigative story, and of its author, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. It’s a remarkable tale, and one with important lessons for “big data” journalism today.

Though he’s no longer a household name, Horace Greeley was one of the most important public figures of the 19th century. His Tribune had a circulation larger than any paper in the city except for cross-town rival James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald. More than 286,000 copies of the Tribune’s daily, weekly and semi-weekly editions were sold in the city and across the country by 1860, which by its own reckoning made it the largest-circulation newspaper in the U.S. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “Greeley does the thinking for the whole West at $2 per year for his paper.”

Greeley himself was a popular public speaker and a hugely influential national figure. He was a fascinating, frustrating, contradictory man. He was a leading abolitionist whose support for the Civil War was limited at best, yet his abolitionist writing in the Tribune made the paper the target of an angry mob during the Draft Riots in 1863. He was a vegetarian and a utopian socialist who published Karl Marx in the Tribune, but believed fervently in manifest destiny and America’s western expansion. He was a New York icon who thought the city was a terrible influence on working people and encouraged them to “Go West” to escape it. Though he was one of the founders of the Republican Party, his relationship with Abraham Lincoln was strained, and he ran for president in 1872 on what amounted to the Democratic ticket, losing big and dying broken-hearted before the Electoral College could meet to certify Grant’s election.

Long before his presidential campaign, and for decades, Greeley and his paper held sway with hundreds of thousands of everyday Americans. But if he was a celebrity with the people, he was far less successful convincing political elites to sponsor his entry into political office. His moralism and mercurial nature seem to have been a steady annoyance to powerful figures like New York’s William Seward and Whig (and later Republican) party boss Thurlow Weed. ...




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