Chronicle: Tracking New York Times language use over time

Chronicle graph of World War I and Great War

 

News publishing is an inherently ephemeral act. A big story will consume public attention for a day, or a month or a year only to fade from memory as quickly as it erupted. But news coverage, aggregated over time, can provide a fascinating “first draft of history” — a narrative of events as they occurred. At The New York Times, we have an incredibly rich resource in our 162-year archive of Times reporting, and one of the areas we occasionally explore in the lab is how to harness our archive to create new kinds of experiences or tools.

Two years ago, I created Chronicle, a tool for graphing the usage of words and phrases in New York Times reporting. Inspired by my own love of language and history, it’s a fascinating way to see historical events, political shifts, cultural trends or stylistic tropes. Chronicle can reveal things like the rise of feminism, evolution of cultural bêtes noires or when we shifted from talking about the “greenhouse effect” to talking about “climate change”. The Times’ corpus is particularly interesting as a reflection of culture because our style guide  carefully informs how our reporters use language to describe the world, which allows us to see those changes more clearly than if we were looking at a heterogenous archive of text. More broadly, Chronicle acts as another example of “semantic listening” approaches we have been researching in the lab — methods for extracting useful semantic signals from streams as diverse as conversations, web browsing history, or in this case, a historic corpus of news coverage.

Since its creation, Chronicle has been in use internally as a research tool, and has occasionally made its way into our report, most notably in Margaret Sullivan’s election day look at hot-button issues in past presidential elections. While we have made a multitude of discoveries through using Chronicle within The Times, we want to see what our readers can unearth about our history as well. As of today, Chronicle is now open and available to the public. Go explore and tell us about your best finds by tweeting them to @nytlabs!