The German-American Press Network and Gender

A Scalable Reading of Transtextuality in Digitized Newspapers, 1830-1914 

Jana Keck


German-language newspapers in the United States flourished during the era of transatlantic mass migration. They played a crucial role in orienting migrants into their new society while simultaneously served as a vital link to their diverse cultural roots, offering a sense of familiarity and connection to their heritage. These newspapers became the primary source of both information, advertising, and entertainment. Made possible due to innovations of the rotary press, linotype and stereotype machines, advancements in telegraphic, ship, railroad systems, as well as editors’ professional networks and the widespread technique of copying material, texts were spreading extensively through the emerging German-immigrant press network.

This project uses digitized newspapers and deploys computational methods to examine the German-American newspapers (1830-1914) as a network by investigating texts that were shared across states and decades. While scholars have employed various terms such as “scissors-and-paste” (Beals), “reprinting” (McGill), “steal it, change it, print it” (Pigeon), and “virality” (Cordell) to describe the intricate system of circulation and reprinting during the nineteenth century, this study goes beyond these descriptions by drawing upon Gérard Genette’s framework of “transtextuality” to study textual migration encompassing a wide range of texts that were constantly exchanged, selected, edited, shared, and reused across different temporal and spatial contexts. This expanded perspective on (legally) appropriating content includes not only the repetition of text in the form of quotations and translations but also parodies, concepts, ideas, and images providing a comprehensive understanding of the complex dynamics of (inter-)textual circulation in that era.

A collection of 36 newspapers published across thirteen states during the long nineteenth century, digitized and consolidated within the Chronicling America database of historic newspapers, served as the foundation for employing text reuse detection software, enabling the identification of clusters of similar texts. The development of a classifier (unsupervised and supervised machine learning) has allowed for the automatic categorization of texts into various types ranging from news articles, lists, to poems, and more.

Through explorative computational analysis and scalable reading(s), not only has it been possible to map the press network of German-American immigrant communities, but it has also unveiled the significant representation of advertising and short fiction. Previously regarded as mere fillers aimed at enticing readers to purchase newspapers, the study of advertising and fiction demonstrates that they were, in fact, the primary driving forces behind the existence of the immigrant press. These genres also indicate the dominant role of women in the production of the immigrant press. By delving into advertising and entertainment through a gender-focused lens, the study illuminates the multifaceted role of women as owners, publishers, editors, writers, consumers, and readers. This approach provides a significant perspective within migration research, offering insights into the intricate portrayals of gender and ethnicity, media and mediation, as well as the dynamic and rapidly changing realities experienced by German migrants.

(completed in 2023)