The Telegraph and News Content in the Mid-19th Century America

Tianyi Wang, University of Pittsburgh

Combining data on the growth of the telegraph network with digitized historic US newspapers, this paper studies the impact of the electric telegraph on news content during the period 1840-1849. I use proximity to large cities to provide plausibly exogenous variation in access to the telegraph for small town newspapers. The high cost of using the telegraph during this period dictates that major city newspapers, and not small town newspapers, were the early adopters of the telegraph for news gathering. Small town newspapers frequently clipped their news from major city newspapers and thus effectively had the same access to the telegraph as nearby major cities. Text analysis shows that access to national news with less delay leads small town newspapers to cover more national news, including coverage of Congress and sectional divisions involving slavery. The results suggest that the telegraph made newspapers less parochial and facilitated a national conversation in antebellum America.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 4. Ideas, Language, and Media