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COMM 421/621, History of Mass Media
Instructor: Ross Collins

Writing your historical term paper

I. Historical term paper topic ideas and sources


All of these ideas are based on primary material available in local archives. Not only is it more fun to do research using primary sources, it's more significant to add to our scanty knowledge of local and regional media history. You can be the first to tell us something new!

This is not a complete list of subjects. You may propose a topic of your own. However, the topic must be local or regional in nature so that you can rely on primary sources, and must have something to do with the mass media. After you've chosen a topic idea, contact me for advice on how to proceed.

Archives you'll likely consult: Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University library; Northwest Minnesota Historical Center, Minnesota State University Moorhead library; Clay County Historical Society, Hjemkomst Center, Moorhead, Minn. Sources for help: Michael Robinson (NDSU institute archives), Terry Shoptaugh (MSUM archives), Mark Piehl (Hjemkomst-Clay County archives), or contact me for advice. You'll also need to gather secondary source information and background from the libraries or on-line.

Other helpful online resources.

North Dakota State Archives.
Much of this material can be shipped to North Dakota State through interlibrary loan.

The Internet Archive.
An wide-ranging source for internet-based documents and images.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
A Library of Congress project, search old newspapers. Not comprehensive, but just might have what you need.

Library of Congress Print and Photo collection.
While you probably won't be traveling to Washington to search the comprehensive Library of Congress collections, you can download many of its historical photographs.

Credit to the source collections below goes to William David Sloan, University of Alabama, one of the country's top journalism historians.

Repositories of Primary Sources. University of Idaho.
A listing of over 5000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources for the research scholar. All links have been tested for correctness and appropriateness.

Historic Pages.
Has links to the following websites: American Antiquarian Society; State of Wisconsin Historical Society (Archives Division); Library of Congress Newspapers & Periodicals; American Journalism Review; Civil War Newspapers in GIF format; Documents of American History online; Index of Web Sites related to the Civil War; Internet Public Library; and Project Censored.

Note: oral history (interviews) must be accompanied by archival or library research. Don't depend on interviews alone--as you've found out, they may be inaccurate. They may also, however, add information available nowhere else.

Competition, grading and bonuses: The best of these articles, with the author's permission, will be posted to the class web site student work pages. Students whose papers are judged worthy of inclusion on the web site will receive enough extra credit points applied to their final exam grade to raise their score by one letter grade (C to B, B to A, etc.; those who already score an A on the final will receive extra credit on the midterm exam, or on daily grades. As well, of course, they will receive an A on their term paper project.

Local or regional research topic ideas.

1. University records.

  • The Spectrum has been published for more than a century, and offers a treasury of topics for student historians. (Minnesota State University Moorhead's Advocate, formerly Mistic, or Concordia's Concordian could also be consulted.) A few possibilities:
  • How did the Spectrum cover the Vietnam War or World War II? Compared to other student newspapers, such as the Mistic/Advocate?
  • Compare most common advertising topics 1920-1940-1960-1980-1999.
  • Women on campus: compare photographs and drawings, articles, or advertising about women 1920-1950-1990. What did they wear? How were they depicted?
  • Layout and design changes throughout the decades.
  • History of editorial topics, different time periods.
  • Editor biographies and backgrounds, chronology.
  • Sports coverage. Choose a specific sport, or compare women's sports coverage through different historical periods.
  • Oral history: interview former editors about the times and their activities. Contact Michael Robinson in the NDSU archives, or Alumni office, for suggestions. Interview by telephone, or in person, if possible. Corroborate interviews with newspaper material and interviews of contemporaries.
  • MSUM topic: Project E-Quality and its coverage in the press. Contact Terry Shoptaugh, Northwest Minnesota Historical Center, MSU library.
  • When the university closed down the student newspaper: MSUM's Dille and the Mistic years. Contact as above, and Roland Dille, former MSUM president.
  • The Spectrum in the hippie era." Zip to Zap."
  • Other, use your imagination!

B. University relations/publications/programs.

  • Compare viewbooks/promotional materials from today and the past. How has the depiction of students changed in photos and/or text? How has design changed? What techniques did university relations writers use to attract students based on publications of the 1940s (catalog) and today (catalog and other materials)? What kinds of students were depicted? Mostly women or men? Minorities? Studying or relaxing?
  • How have catalogs changed over the decades?
  • Bison Briefs: research changes in approach of publications geared toward alumni. Oral history: Interview Kathy Laid, or Jerry Richardson, now retired in Fargo, who edited the publication for many years, to talk about changes, editorial decisions, control, problems, etc. Contact Alumni Office, or University Relations.
  • University photography: Do a history of photography at NDSU. The university has been well known in the past for its photography teaching and practice. Interview Mark Strand (now at MSUM), Nick Kelsh (professional, went to NDSU), others.
  • History of communication study at NDSU. How department started, changes, etc. Interview Robert Littlefield, Lou Richardson (now retired, living in Fargo), look through old catalogs, promotional material, etc.
  • Ag communication: How has its approach changed over the years? Analyze publications through the decades.
  • Radio: the rise and changes of campus radio at NDSU. Interview Roger Grimm, former station manager.
  • Sports information, past and present. Research publications, oral history. How has it changed? What sports were promoted in the past?

2. Local records, local media history.

  • How has the Forum or other publications portrayed women/minorities/ students/etc., through the decades? Possible questions to research:
  • How has the role of women changed in newspapers or broadcast, 1950-present?
  • Regionally?
  • Nationally?
  • How has the role of minorities (Afro-American, Hispanic, Asian) changed in newspapers or broadcast, 1950-present?
  • Regionally?
  • Nationally?
  • How were women/minorities portrayed during (decade or time period) in
  • broadcast, (radio or television), local or national?
  • newspapers, local or national?
  • university newspapers, NDSU or regional?
  • Advertisements, local or national?

Other publications no longer in existence, 19th and 20th centuries: research content and approach of interesting but now-defunct publications: such as Fargo Courier, Moorhead Daily News, Moorhead Monitor, (editor Michael Stein still lives in Moorhead), Fargo Journal (?), etc. Some of these make fascinating reading. Check periodicals list to see what's available, or ask Michael Robinson, other archivists.

Alternative journalism in F-M: John Strand, former publisher of High Plains Reader, and research in archives for publications of the past.

Local or regional magazines: Compare content, coverage over the decades. Many have been saved in archives, including Howard Binford's Guide, Farrago, Area Women. Ask archivists.

Analysis of local journalism through corporate newsletter. The Forum's In-Forumer is available at the archives.

Foreign language press in Fargo, North Dakota, Minnesota, or regionallyl. (Was once a major force in regional journalism.) Talk to archivists to get started.

Mike Notes: WDAY-radio and television's early days newsletter. This is a rare treasure of early television material, and needs to be analyzed. Research for content, topics.

Oral history: tape recordings were made of well-known news people, such as Dewey Bergquist, now dead, but they need transcribing and interpreting. Contact archives.

More oral history: local important media people, now retired, candidates for biographies, and information about early days. Possibilities:

  • Early radio and filmmaking 1940s-1970s. Tom Tollefson, Fargo film-maker, others.
  • Women and the media in past decades, 1950s-1980s: Kathy Coyle, KXJB-TV, others.
  • Newspapers 1950s-1990s: John Lohman, retired news editor, The Forum, others.
  • Early photography (19th century) in the area. Interpret photo choices, research early photographer careers. Contact archivists.

Impact of Fargo area on photography: photographers from Fargo area who are well known nationally:

  • Cal Olson (former National Press Photographers Association president).
  • Colburn Hvidston (former National Press Photographers Association president), photo chief, The Forum, retired.
  • Nick Kelsh (Day in the Life, Naked Babies);
  • Keri Pickett (Cancer Ward, Tibet);
  • Fred Scheel (important photo collector and art photographer).
  • Tom Abercrombie (National Geographic, retired).

Early television: Roy Peterson papers, NDSU archives.

Publications and Politics: Non-Partisan League in North Dakota, 1910-1930, and their publications. Drawings and cartoons are particularly interesting, worth analyzing for themes.

Early advertising agencies in Fargo. Flint Communications: contact Roger Reierson (CEO) for help.

The weather: how were regional weather patterns portrayed in media, now compared to the past?

  • Floods: 1897 and 1997 or 2009, compared in the media. What did neighboring journalists write about them?
  • Blizzards: choose sample months (winter ones, probably) and time periods: 1880s, 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, 1960s, 1980s, etc.
  • Criticism of weather forecasting and the national weather service in regional media.
  • Weather difficulties and how they relate to university student recruitment.
  • Weather portrayals in early (1870-90) regional newspapers, how it relates to promotion of the area for settlement.
  • Suggested sources: archives and library, Forum and Minneapolis Star Tribune indices and microfilm, other regional newspapers (some are available through interlibrary loan), Oral history: John Wheeler of WDAY, others (ask archivists).

Sports broadcasting or sports reporting: What's changed over the decades?

Celebrities from the region, and the media. Lawrence Welk papers are available at the archives. Others include Peggy Lee, Jonny Lang, Eric Severeid. Ask archivists.

War and the region. Compare coverage of a particular battle during World War I, during World War II, during the Vietnam War, during the Gulf War, during the Afghan war, for similarities and contrasts. Assess editorial opinion concerning a war from the perspective of several regional newspapers. Consider North Dakota's socialist newspapers for interesting contrast in World War I coverage.

Broadcast history: it's tough, because few records exist. Some WDAY material in NDSU archives, and some things online. Ask an archivist.

Return to class resources.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>