The Electric Telegraph, News Coverage and Political Participation

56 Pages Posted: 19 May 2020

See all articles by Tianyi Wang

Tianyi Wang

University of Pittsburgh - Department of Economics

Date Written: April 22, 2020


How does timely access to national news shape political outcomes? Using newly digitized data on the growth of the telegraph network, the paper studies the impact of the electric telegraph on political participation in the mid-19th century America. I use proximity to daily newspapers with telegraphic connection to Washington to generate plausibly exogenous variation in access to telegraphed news from Washington. I find that access to Washington news with less delay increased presidential election turnout. Effects were concentrated in regions least connected to Washington prior to the telegraph. For mechanisms, I provide evidence that newspapers facilitated the dissemination of national news to local areas. Text analysis on historic newspapers shows that the improved access to news from Washington led newspapers to cover more national political news, including coverage of Congress, the presidency, and sectional divisions involving slavery. The results suggest that the telegraph made newspapers less parochial, facilitated a national conversation and increased political participation.

Keywords: Information Technology, Newspaper, Political Participation, Economic History

JEL Classification: O3, L96, L82, D72, N71

Suggested Citation

Wang, Tianyi, The Electric Telegraph, News Coverage and Political Participation (April 22, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Tianyi Wang (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - Department of Economics ( email )

4901 Wesley Posvar Hall
230 South Bouquet Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States

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