This past month in the CHI fellowship, we worked on a practice data visualization project. My group took data about regional sheep and human populations in New Zealand, and showed their differing ratios by region.

This got me thinking about the research that I do with South African newspapers, and what sorts of data from newspapers could be visualized, and what that would teach us about newspaper production and circulation in South Africa.

Another CHI fellow pointed me in the direction of the Viral Texts Project (thanks, Laura McGrath!). This project shows how certain texts and news items were copied and shared between newspapers across the nineteenth-century United States. Some of their visualizations include a web visualization that shows a line between newspapers for every time that one paper copied material from another. Another of their fascinating visualizations is a sort of close reading of one particular viral text – a humorous love letter – which shows a single page of the newspaper and links to editorial comments explaining the context and linkages between certain phrases.

What sorts of things might scholars be able to learn from looking similarly at South African newspapers? This page here, although the resolution isn’t very good (thanks for that, microfilm!) shows all sorts of interesting connections.

The man pictured, who’s also the writer of the letter below, is A.P. Mda, a prominent figure in the founding of the African National Congress. The paper he’s writing in, Umlindi we Nyanga, was edited by R.H. Godlo who was a leader in a different rival political party, the All African Congress. Godlo is the writer of the text in the right-hand columns. Furthermore, the paper itself was printed at the press owned by D.D.T. Jabavu, yet another writer and politician whose attempt to reconcile the ANC and AAC (just a year after this paper was printed) failed and ended his own political career. And that’s not even getting into the connections between the products that are advertised on the page. Although the product names are different, all of the products advertised on this page are made by companies which are owned by the parent company that printed Umlindi we Nyanga. Kowie Medicines (the parent company) and its factories were an important employer in the peri-urban region of East London where Godlo and Jabavu and their constituents lived and worked.

While my own CHI project will not examine the actual text of newspapers closely in this way, our recent CHI training in experimenting with visualization has me thinking about how the information about personal relationships, political rivalry, and financial ties could be represented visually, in ways that would show us something new. What if we could track the appearance of writers in the newspaper (who are often writing advertising copy) in relation to their political and personal ties to each other outside of the paper?