As my first process blog post, below is my project proposal.  My brain is starting to ache in empathy for Rory, who will probably pull his hair out when he has to help with the “technological wrangling” of those of us with wild imaginations.  Feedback is welcomed!

A study of New York City’s print media circulatory system

New York’s heartbeat

I grew up in the Midwest, where the thud of a rolled newspaper hitting the front door was more reliable than my analog alarm clock.  Newspapers were the tangible portal to what was happening outside, and the arrival of a fresh edition was akin to another heartbeat of media pulsation.  A paperboy’s bike route, if traced, would have revealed a lot:  who was reading the newspaper, who was on vacation, which families received important-looking out-of-town papers, which streets had an unusual number of vacant homes.  New York’s newspaper delivery system is much too voluminous for a bike route, but the aftermath of an early-morning New York City newspaper drop leaves a similarly revealing, more dense and intricate, layer of information.  As media artifacts, the drop points of these newspapers are as historically significant as the text printed within them.   Particularly prior to the digitization of textual news (and, simultaneously, the sharp decline in print circulation), studying a demographical “pulsation” -movement and growth over time- of print newspaper circulation in New York City could be a richly connective factor to other historical trends that may not be outwardly related.

So, to continue with this playful but relevant bodily tie-in, I’d like to create a function of the URT that can show, year-by-year and newspaper-by-newspaper, the circulatory system of New York City’s print newspapers.  Casting aside each newspaper’s political agenda, glittery readership data, economic fluctuation, revenue, etc. will allow me to use the physical, map-able data of circulation by zip code (the universal standard of measurement among newspapers) as the cornerstone for future connections.  I’ll untangle the web of statistics that upholds a newspaper’s historical significance and answer the simple question:  WHERE did the newspapers go, and when did they go there?  After I accomplish this, I’ll be able to build on this info with supporting historical parallels to make connections with other projects.

What’s socially important about print newspaper circulation?

Well, in the body, the circulatory system’s function is to carry blood away from the heart and move substances between cells.  I like this metaphor because newspapers, for nearly the entire 20th century, were a crucial media system that functioned similarly, carrying news to readers and prompting civic engagement between them.

Methodologies behind the measurement of a newspaper’s success often stem from revenue potential.  A newspaper, in order to survive, must sell advertising.  To be marketable to potential advertisers, a newspaper must have a loyal, demographically specific readership base.  Until very recently when digital analytics allowed for technically specific measurement of readership based on time-on-site, unique visits, navigation paths, etc., newspapers showcased their readership solely through more broad demographic research.  This information may include average household income, median age, social habits, educational background, and race/gender.  It’s arguable, however, that the most important factor in determining a newspaper’s prominence is its circulation.  A map of New York City, divided by zip code and labeled with yearly circulation figures, is a historical reference point for other socially important goings-on:  what else was happening in the East Village in the 1977 that caused New York Times circulation to nosedive in a concentrated area?  Was a loss of interest in the newspaper a social cause, or a social effect?  The beauty of using a multimodal platform for this research is the open, infinite number of historical connections that may either overlap lightly or connect directly with other vistas of cultural history.


First, I’ll need to narrow down the actual newspapers included in the research.  This selection will be based on the longevity of a newspaper’s existence within the past century, because without a range of data over time, the amalgamation of each newspaper’s information will be troublesome.  My choice to focus only on daily newspapers is also one to support the project’s consistency.  I plan to first gather statistics directly from the newspaper’s archival resources as much as possible.  Since the invention of press packages/media kits, easily digestible sources of circulation numbers have become available for public use.  For earlier data, I’ll need to contact the actual circulation department of each newspaper.  Because most newspapers measure their circulation by zip code, I’ll adhere to this standard.  I’ll also use media audit sources to compare data.

It should be noted that circulation does not equal actual readership; rather, it is literally a measure of the publication’s physical reach.  Newspaper circulation is generally recorded by the number of copies distributed on the press date, whether it’s daily, weekly or periodically.  Overall, circulation includes paid circulation (copies delivered to subscribers and copies sold to readers via vendor or hawker), and unpaid circulation (copies given to readers or advertisers free of charge, sometimes called “comp copies” or “comp subscriptions”).  Again, I’ll focus on the physical question of WHERE the papers went, and WHEN.

My ideal initial body of research will be complete when I’ve recorded the yearly average number of copies a newspaper “drops” in each zip code per day.  This will span (hopefully) from 1910-present, giving me one hundred years of data.  My initial thought for how this could transfer to a function of the URT is to somehow create a density indicator that could show movement and growth in circulation throughout the course of a century.  To ease the technical sophistication of showing movement, I could fragment each newspaper’s data by ten years, and eventually combine all data on one map per ten years.  I’d also eventually like to include photos or short interview sound clips to my project.  It’s my hunch that once I’ve done the actual research, finding even more ways to represent this spatially will surface and combine.