By Meg Heckman, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Northeastern University.

Tales of New Hampshire’s first-in-the nation presidential primary almost always mention the Union Leader, a newspaper that’s as much a part of the state’s political lore as candidates hustling for votes in diners and on factory floors. Journalists love to retrace the paper’s history and rehash how publisher William Loeb used hyperbolic front-page editorials to shape national politics – but the story of the Union Leader’s influence doesn’t end there.

After William Loeb’s death in 1981, his widow, Nackey Scripps Loeb, took over as president and publisher. She led the Union Leader Corporation for nearly 20 years and left a lasting mark on the conservative movement, but her career is often overlooked because of her husband’s super-sized reputation and a tendency among journalism historians to omit the contributions of female practitioners. Thanks to a seed grant from NULab, I’ve spent the last year trying to remedy that oversight by digitizing and analyzing some of Loeb’s writing.

Portrait of Nackey Scripps Loeb, courtesy of the Union Leader Corporation.

During that time, I’ve collected enough evidence to challenge the conventional wisdom that Nackey Loeb was a passive publisher who never fully emerged from the shadow of her late husband’s legacy – an argument that’s yielded two conference papers and a book contract. (More on that later.) This project has evolved into something else, too: a powerful reminder about the importance of finding new ways to ask questions. As a journalist, I’ve spent decades plumbing the depths of people’s lives, but the basic text analysis techniques I used for this project added a new and exciting component to my traditional method of inquiry.

Here’s a quick summary of the scope of my work and some of the themes I’ve uncovered so far: Like her husband, Nackey Loeb wrote frequent front-page editorials, many of which helped shape the conversation around national issues important to the conservative movement. From the time she became publisher in September 1981 until her retirement in 2000, she wrote 1,648 editorials totaling 481,783 words, plus occasional columns about visiting the White House, descriptions of her summer fishing trips and a few editorial cartoons. My text analysis is limited to her editorials, but the other materials help illuminate Loeb’s position in the political arena and give a sense of how she spent her time outside of work.

The Union Leader began digital archiving in mid-1989, so some of her writing was available through NewsBank. Finding the rest required days of scrolling through microfilm at the Boston Public Library. I used my NULab seed grant to hire journalism graduate students Brilee Weaver and Catherine McGloin to help find and organize all of Loeb’s editorials. The NewsBank files were fairly easy to clean up, but the PDFs we made from microfilm weren’t machine readable and needed to be transcribed by hand. For this step, I used the remainder of my grant to pay for transcription through TypingService.org. This project was a little different than the service’s usual work so I had to explain what I wanted a few times, but the customer service was excellent, the text was accurate and the price was reasonable. Once we assembled the corpus, we counted the frequency and volume of Nackey Loeb’s editorials by month and year and performed basic text analysis using Voyant, an open-source tool that’s quick to learn and requires no knowledge of computer code.

The process of digitizing and analyzing Nackey Loeb’s writing felt almost meditative and provided a structured way to interact with her ideology and better understand the decisions she made about her newspaper company’s role in civic life. Loeb was acutely aware of her unique position and used her editorials to build her public persona and cultivate the two audiences she inherited along with the Union Leader. She described them in her very first editorial when she wrote about serving “the people of New Hampshire and the citizens of this country.” Voyant’s cirrus tool created a world cloud that helped me see how Loeb catered to both constituencies by writing about a mix of local and national issues. “New” and “Hampshire” were the most common geographic terms in the corpus, but “country,” “Washington,” “world” and “nation” appeared frequently, too:

Most of Loeb’s career predated the web, but her audience engagement techniques should be familiar to any modern blogger. Her editorials elevated other voices and pointed out news stories, columns or op-eds she found interesting. Often, she’d invite readers to submit letters about a certain subject or ask a segment of the population – teenagers, for instance – to share whatever was on their minds. She dealt mostly with the serious issues of her day but occasionally had fun, too, like when she started “The Great NH Cat Contest” in July 1983. We also found that her writing intensified in the weeks before New Hampshire’s presidential primary. This was expected, but it was somewhat surprising to see that she also wrote intensely during the summer political conventions and before the general elections. For instance, the 1984 New Hampshire primary took place in February and, as this chart shows, Loeb’s published editorials peaked during that month. After a dip during the spring, her writing intensified again and remained strong through the end of the election cycle:  

Using a travel grant from NULab, I presented preliminary results at the Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference at New York University in March. (Side note: This conference was fantastic and is open to researchers from a variety of fields. If you’re doing work in this space, consider submitting an abstract this fall.) I shared a more detailed analysis at the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication’s annual conference in Washington, D.C in August. I’m also under contract with Potomac Books to write Nackey Loeb’s biography.

Text analysis alone wasn’t enough to prove Loeb’s national impact, but it helped focus my outside reporting and archival research. I have many months of research and writing ahead, but I’ve been able to sketch the contours of her career, demonstrate the broad geographic reach of her audience and document her desire to increase the Union Leader’s role in national politics.

Note: Meg Heckman’s research is partially supported by a grant from the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks.