An Urban Media History
A Media History of the City
A media history of the city could take on any number of forms. The shape of this history would largely be determined by how we defined its key terms. How should “the city” be understood? Such a history could begin in ancient or pre-historical times, starting with the earliest human settlements and urban agglomerations. On the other hand, it would also be possible to select a single moment along this vast timeline and analyze this temporal snapshot to see how various media are intersecting with urban life. This history could even be a contemporary history of modern media practices and institutions and their role in the urban experience. The other key question is how “media” should be understood. What media should be included in our study? How inclusive or exclusive should our definition be? Depending on how expansive our definition is, our history could begin by looking at human settlements established in pre-literate societies where spoken language was the primary communication medium. Our history could also look at the development of alphabets, and the role of various writing media such as tablets, papyrus, and parchment in facilitating the construction and governance of cities. Our history could instead follow a traditional mass communication view of modern media. In contemporary New York City place names such as Radio City Music Hall and Times Square attest to the impact that media of mass communication has made in urban spaces.
In order to limit the scope of this essay, I will frame my response as a curriculum overview for an imagined undergraduate course on media and the city. Framing the response in this way provides a framework and rationale for defining the terms of our analysis and the range of history we can reasonably attempt. A typical U.S. undergraduate introductory course in media studies approaches its subject using the “big 5” traditional media: newspapers, magazines, film, radio, and TV. For the sake of this essay, and imagining a potential undergraduate course based on this subject, I will structure my response around these “big 5” traditional media. Also in following the structure of a typical undergraduate media course, the history I present will correspond to the history of mass communication in the United States. The history I offer here is mostly confined to the 20th century, and focuses on U.S. cities. As such, this imaginary course I am outlining could be called “History of U.S. media and urbanization.” In what follows, I offer five key moments in this “media history of the city,” with each moment corresponding to one of the big 5 traditional media. Each entry will offer some historical information on the development of that media form, and a case study that illustrates the intersection between media use and the life of city. Finally, I will offer a sixth moment and case study that accounts for more recent developments in digital media and technological convergence, as well as salient aspects of urban life in the 21st century metropolis.
Moment One: Penny Papers and Newsboys on Strike
Early colonial newspapers tended to be political in nature, what were called the “partisan press” as opposed to commercial papers. In the 1830s, technological developments associated with the industrial revolution allowed for new paper production practices. Expensive handmade paper could be replaced by cheaper mass produced paper. Before this change in production, newspapers cost about 5 cents to purchase, which was relatively expensive for the time. Therefore newspaper readers tended to be affluent. Using the less expensive production techniques, publishers could sell papers for as cheap as 1 cent. Thus the “penny press” or “penny papers” were born, and this is the moment when newspapers truly became a mass media. Newspaper publishers had long relied on subscription service for reliable purchases of their papers, but in the penny press era individual street sales became an important part of the business model as well. One of the major penny press papers was the New York Sun owned by Benjamin Day. Under Day’s stewardship, the Sun privileged accounts of the daily triumphs and travails of the human condition, what are now known as “human interest stories.”
The penny papers introduced many innovations that remain part of the newspaper industry today, including assigning “beat” reporters to cover special story topics such as crime, and shifting the economic basis for publishing from the support of political parties (as in the “partisan press” era) to the market. The penny press era gave rise to an increase in newspaper production with an emphasis on competitive, profitable papers. This economic environment set the stage for some of the most famous newspaper barons to enter the scene. For instance, Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst bought the New York Journal shortly thereafter. Pulitzer pushed for the use of maps and illustrations in his papers, so that immigrants who were not fluent in English could understand the stories. Both Pulitzer and Hearst used bold headlines and layouts to attract reader attention. These practices became emblematic of the yellow journalism period, a term that also connotes sensationalism and even unscrupulous journalistic standards. Pulitzer and Hearst papers did call for social reforms and drew attention to the poor living conditions of poor immigrants in the cities; however, the papers also embellished stories, fabricated interviews, and staged promotional stunts in order to increase reader interest and boost circulation. In 1895, a conflict began that would go on to boost both papers’ fortunes. The island of Cuba had been a colony of Spain since the arrival of Columbus, and in 1895 an insurrection began against Spanish rule that would become known as the Cuban War of Independence. At the time Hearst and Pulitzer were engaged in a war of their own: a circulation war. Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s papers used the conflict to sell papers and boost circulation, deriding Spain in headlines and calling for U.S. intervention. In 1898 the U.S. ship the Maine was sent to Cuba and exploded and sank in Havana harbor, with hundreds of sailors killed. The World and the Journal ran headlines like “Spanish Murderers” and “Remember the Maine,” and the Spanish-American War is still remembered as a prime example of propaganda in the U.S. media swaying public opinion in favor of war, even when facts were misrepresented or embellished.
Benjamin Day’s New York Sun did not offer a subscription service, and instead relied solely on individual street sales to make a profit. To better distribute his papers, Day placed a wanted ad seeking workers to sell the newspapers on the street. Day expected adult workers to respond to the ad, but he found instead that children inquired about the job instead. The first vendor he hired was 10 year old Irish immigrant who would take bundles of papers onto a street corner and shout out the most arresting headlines to get reader interest. Soon this became a new and pervasive method of selling newspapers on city streets. These newspaper vendors or “hawkers” were also called newsboys or paperboys, although girls were often found in their ranks as is evident in many of the photographs taken of children news vendors at the time. These children worked long hours, often through late nights and early mornings, and even sleeping on front stoops or in the street, something also attested to by photographs of the period. Vendors would buy bundles of newspapers from the publishers, and they were not refunded for unsold papers. In 1899, in the wake of the boost in circulation numbers precipitated by the Spanish-American War coverage, many publishers raised the price of newsboy bundles from 50 cents to 60 cents. In response, in July 1899, newsboys refused to sell Pulitzer and Hearst papers. Newsboys demonstrated in the thousands and broke up newspaper distribution in the streets. One gathering blocked off the Brooklyn Bridge, disrupting traffic across the East river as well as interrupting news circulation throughout the entire region. Pulitzer tried to hire adults to vend his newspapers but they were sympathetic to the newsboys’ plight and refused to defy the strike. He did hire men to break up newsboy demonstrations and to protect newspaper deliveries. The newsboys asked the public to not buy any newspapers until the cost of bundles was lowered and the strike was resolved. Eventually the publishers relented: although the cost of bundles was not decreased, the publishers agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsboys. The strike ended in August 1899, two weeks after it had started.
The 1899 Newsboy Strike is a significant moment in the history of U.S. media, U.S. urban life, and U.S. labor relations. New York City was built by a great deal of immigrant labor, and many of these laborers were children. It is important to remember and acknowledge this important part of U.S. urban history. The 1899 strike was credited for inspiring similar newsboy strikes in Butte, Montana and Louisville, Kentucky. It is an important story in the history of labor law reform in the U.S., even though it is not as well-remembered as landmark events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. While the newsboy strike did not lead to the sort of immediate reforms that the Shirtwaist factory disaster did, it did impact the implementation of child labor laws in the city over the following decades. Furthermore this case illustrates the practices of distribution and circulation that newspapers relied on, as well as the political economy of the media and its relationship to national and global politics.
Moment Two: Muckraking Magazines and the Shame of the Cities
The modern magazine has decidedly “urban” roots. The word “magazine” originally referred to a storehouse for munitions. The first use of the term to refer to a publication was in 1731 by “The Gentleman’s Magazine” published in London. The publisher of “The Gentleman’s Magazine” used the pen name Sylvanus Urban, and this is what I meant when I said that magazines had “urban” roots. As with newspapers, developments of the industrial revolution such as conveyor systems and printing processes allowed for less expensive manufacturing practices, and therefore magazines could be sold cheaper and reach a wider audience. Another significant development was the Postal Act of 1879, which reduced the postal rates of magazines to the same price as newspapers, making the cost of a magazine subscription affordable for more Americans. Additionally, more and more jobs and people were moving from rural areas to cities. As increasing numbers of immigrants came together in urban cores, national magazines helped facilitate the formation of national identities as opposed to local or regional identity. Relatedly, the increase in the number of dime stores, drug stores, and department stores created new venues for consumer items, and magazines offered new venues for advertising these items. Ladies’ Home Journal was known for running the latest consumer advertisements, and became the first magazine to reach a subscription base of one million customers, reflecting the growth of the female consumer base.
In addition to sustaining and reflecting the growing consumer economy in the country, magazines also played an important role in social reform movements. Jane Addams reportedly first read about the settlement house movement from a magazine article (possibly from an article in Century magazine). With her interest piqued by the article, Addams and a friend soon travelled to London to visit the first settlement house, Toynbee Hall. The settlement house movement advocated the establishment of “settlement houses” in poor areas where middle class volunteers would come and live, with the goal of alleviating conditions of poverty and creating solidarity among the social classes. Two years after visiting Toynbee Hall Addams opened the first U.S. settlement house, Hull House in Chicago. Addams also wrote articles about the settlement house movement for magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and McClure’s. Another important role of magazines in social reform movements was related to photojournalism. Magazines had the ability to reproduce high quality photographs, giving them a visual edge against other media of the day. In the late 1880s an emigrant to the U.S. named Jacob Riis became shocked at the living conditions in the New York City slums and purchased a detective camera to document life in these areas. Riis exhibited his photographs as part of a public lecture presentation called “The Other Half: How it Lives and Dies in New York.” The lectures became popular and Riis wrote an article based on his lectures for Scribner’s Magazine. His project was eventually published as a book.
The aforementioned McClure’s magazine was a hotbed of reform-minded journalism at the turn of the 20th century. At the end of the 1800s the magazine had published exposes on the working conditions of miners and corporate practices of the Standard Oil Company. In 1901 journalist Lincoln Steffens published the first article in a series on corruption in U.S. cities. Steffens first went to St. Louis and reported on the machinations of the local political machine. Next he went to Minneapolis, and found the mayor and police chief colluding to take bribes for local houses of prostitution. Then he went to Pittsburgh (Pittsburg at the time), writing that “if the environment of Pittsburg is hell with the lid off, the political scene in the city is hell with the lid on.” The final entries in the series were based on visits to Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. The series was eventually published in book form in 1904, titled The Shame of the Cities. The articles made Steffens a national celebrity and inspired a trend of similar expose articles in magazines, including Cosmopolitan’s “The Treason of the Senate”. Steffen’s magazine articles became icons of the muckraker movement, so called by president Roosevelt because they climbed through society’s much to cover the stories. The muckraking journalists are an important part of U.S. media history, and the social reform movements are an important part of U.S. urban history.
Moment Three: Movie Palaces and a Tale of One City
As with newspapers and magazines, the development of motion pictures was closely tied to technological and social developments occurring as part of the industrial revolution. Developments in celluloid film, electric lighting, and the mechanical gears to turn film reels all contributed to technological underpinnings of film as a mass media. In France the Lumiere brothers invented one of the earliest film cameras, and the first film they shot was of workers leaving their family factory in Lyon. In the U.S., Thomas Edison developed the kinetograph, and shortly thereafter established an association of film and technology producers called the Trust. The Trust was a consortium of U.S. and French producers who agreed to pool film technology patents. Edison had also made an arrangement with George Eastman to make the Trust the exclusive recipient of Eastman’s motion picture film stock. To escape the control of the Trust, independent film producers left the traditional motion picture centers of New York and New Jersey. They went west, eventually settling in Southern California which offered cheap labor, ample space, and a mild climate that allowed for year-round location shooting. Southern California became the center of the U.S. film industry, and Hollywood became a toponym for the U.S. studio system (and remains metonymic of that industry today). The Hollywood studio system was built on vertical integration, which meant ownership of every means of the movie production process. This included production (everything involved in making a movie), distribution (getting movies to theaters), and exhibition (the process of screening the movies). Edison’s Trust tried to get the edge on exhibition by controlling the flow of films to theaters. The Hollywood studios instead decided to buy theaters themselves. The Edison Trust was eventually ended due to trade violations, and the Hollywood studios controlled every part of movie production and circulation. Paramount studios alone owned more than 300 theaters. During this period of film exhibition, movie studies built single-screen movie palaces, often ornate architectural achievements that offered a more hospitable viewing environment. Some of the most ornate and expansive movie palaces were built in Chicago. The architectural firm of Balaban and Kurtz designed many of the most famous, including the landmark Chicago Theatre (originally called the Balaban & Kurtz Chicago Theater). Other Chicago theaters built by the firm included the Oriental, the Riviera, and the Uptown theaters. The Uptown theater was the largest movie palace built in the United States.
In 1906 of a group of Chicago officials, designers, and business interests met to discuss the various problems facing the city. The Columbia Exposition a few years earlier had been received as a great success, but now problems of overcrowding, congestion, and the growth of manufacturing in the city were causing concern. This group of stakeholders met over a period of 30 months, and in 1909 they finalized their agreed-upon plan. The Chicago Plan proposed sweeping improvements to the city including rehabilitating the waterfront, redirecting railroad traffic in the city, and redesigning streets to permit better flow in and out of the business district. The mayor signed off on the proposal and then ordered a massive public relations campaign to promote the plan. Informative lectures explaining the plan were held throughout the city, articles and editorials were published in the newspapers, and the proposals were even summarized into a textbook that was taught in city schools, and a generation of Chicago school children grew up learning the values of the Chicago Plan. Also produced as part of this campaign was a two reel film titled A Tale of One City. This film was screened in city movie theaters continuously as part of the vigorous PR effort. Communication scholar James Hay has written about the role of the film in promoting the Chicago Plan as a significant moment in the history of urban renewal projects. The role of the film’s exhibition in the promotional campaign demonstrates the significance of the networks of film distribution and exhibition in reaching a mass audience, but also how the architectural design and location of downtown theaters in the city center made movie theaters important sites for engaging the public and shaping the vision of future urban development.
The Paramount decision of 1948 ended vertical integration and required studios to give up their theaters. This ended the era of studio control, but opened up new venues for film screening such as art houses that exhibited foreign films and documentaries, as well as hundreds of drive-in movie theaters for the millions of filmgoers who now had automobiles. As Americans moved to the suburbs, the movies did, too, building new forms of theaters in multiplexes and then megaplexes. While industry expressions such as “blockbuster” harken back to the role of downtown theaters in film exhibition (the term refers to patrons lined up “around the block” to get into a movie theater), most of the movie palaces have been repurposed, disused, or destroyed. Methods of film distribution and exhibition have significantly changed, and the downtown theaters and movie palaces have been largely replaced by suburban multiplexes. The example of A Tale of One City shows, however, that for a time downtown movie theaters played an integral part in the public life of the city.
Moment Four: Radio Remotes and Mediated Urban Nightlife
The groundwork of popular broadcast radio was being established during the late 1800s. Developments in telegraphy and the theoretical proof of electromagnetic waves were among the chief developments in this early history of the medium. The rise of the new medium of the airwaves was soon reflected in the built form of the U.S. metropolis, which was also turning increasingly skyward. By the 1920s and 30s radio broadcasters were transmitting from the Metropolitan Life building in Manhattan, and the Chrysler and Empire State buildings were designed and built with spires to serve as antennas for broadcasting radio transmissions.
In 1923 a nightclub called the Cotton Club opened in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. The Cotton Club was a whites-only establishment, even though the club featured many of the premiere African American performers of the time. In 1927 Duke Ellington and his band the Washingtonians opened at the Cotton Club. Not long after, a Manhattan-based radio station began broadcasting Ellington’s performances live from the Cotton Club. Scholar Tim Wall has written about the Ellington remotes (the radio industry term for these live, on-location broadcasts) as occurring during a moment of transition for both radio and jazz. The technological, organizational, and cultural futures for the new medium were still being explored and negotiation. The broadcasting of jazz music was significant during this period as well. In 1929, radio network WABC began broadcasting the Ellington performances. WABC broadcast nationally, so now Ellington was being transmitted coast-to-coast. As Wall argues, the national broadcasting of jazz music represented the intrusion of urban life and culture into the country. In 1930 another radio network picked up the Ellington broadcasts, and now the performances were heard on the flagship stations of NBC’s Red and Blue networks. These broadcasts grew Ellington’s fame, and he recorded more than a hundred compositions during this period. The Ellington broadcasts represent a significant moment in the regulatory history of radio, but also the attempts of the young medium to establish a cultural role for its programming. The case of the Ellington Cotton Club remotes also represents how urban culture and performance, and especially African American culture, was being mediated through the shifting systems of national radio networks.
Moment Five: Sitcom Suburbs and the Urban Crisis
Television truly became a mass medium in the years following World War II. Housing subsidies and entrepreneurial real estate developments privileged private suburban construction. Many Americans left urban centers to move to the suburbs, which had a lower tax base. Home ownership doubled between 1945 and 1950. As Americans left cities, and therefore also left the downtown movie theaters, music halls, and other urban venues of recreation and entertainment, radio became a cheap alternative to the movies. The years 1948 and 1949 saw peak radio listenership. After that, television replaced radio as the dominant medium in the home.
In addition to the role of housing policies and subsidies in spurring suburban development, there were also many discriminatory housing policies designed to keep U.S. minorities from moving into suburban communities. This practice has been referred to as American apartheid, and is one of the driving factors of the “urban crisis” that developed in U.S. urban life and discourse during this period. The scholar Dolores Hayden has used the phrase “sitcom suburbs” to refer to the homogenous developments that were also depicted in many of the nationally popular sitcoms during this period. One early flare up of these tensions happened in the Los Angeles area. In 1965, California voters passed a proposition that effectively repealed a fair housing act designed to alleviate discriminatory policies that prevented black and Mexican Americans from buying and renting in certain areas. Shortly thereafter, riots began in the Watts district and lasted for 5 days. More riots occurred in U.S. cities in 1967, and again in April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In each of these cases, the U.S. news media broadcast TV images that have become iconic of these riots and the overall “urban crisis” that came to dominate discourses on U.S. cities for decades.
Following the riots President Johnson appointed a special commission to investigate the causes of the unrest, and suggest how to prevent further unrest. The Kerner Commission detailed several factors that contributed to the urban riots, including explicit and implicit racism and housing discrimination. The commission also called attention to the news media for coverage that misrepresented facts of life in these cities and contributed to a deepening of divisions between white and black Americans. The Kerner Commission’s concerns were echoed by media theorist George Gerbner in his cultivation theory of television, which posits that increased exposure to violent TV programming cultivates a worldview in the viewer in which they perceive reality to be more dangerous than it really is. This period of urban fear and flight, the move to fortified homes and gated communities, has analogous developments in media coverage and development up to today.
Moment Six: Oppa Gangnam Style
Our history so far has taken us from 1899 to 1968. In this last section, let us catch up on some of the developments that occurred in the last 60 years or so. Developments in microprocessor technology led to a computer revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, home computers became more popular and were predicted to revolutionize daily life. Developments in graphical user interfaces allowed everyday, non-technical users to approach computers. In the late 1960s the U.S. defense department began researching a redundant communication system that could remain intact following a nuclear attack. The project. ARPAnet, eventually developed into the Internet. Web browsers and HTML, such as Tim Berners-Lee’s “worldwideweb” launched in 1990, have enabled the Internet to become a mass medium. The computer revolution has also lead to unprecedented technological convergence. Computers connected to the internet have access to the full array of media content. Developments in smartphone technology have changed what was once merely a phone in a mobile device and site of media convergence, and increasingly the favorite device for media consumption and production.
On December 21, 2012, a milestone was reached. The music video for Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became the first video on YouTube to receive one billion views. The case of Gangnam Style can tell us a lot about the state of mass media industries, as well as the state of cities, in our present moment. Psy is a K-Pop musical act, which stands for “Korean Pop,” a genre originating in South Korea. His global popularity points to the importance of transnational media flows in the contemporary media environment. For instance, the increasing importance of the Chinese box office market for the Hollywood studio system. Also, the fact that his popularity spread globally via the Internet indicates the significance of media convergence, as well as how digital platforms for media circulation have upset the traditional forms of media dissemination, as well as changed our metrics for gauging media success (i.e. YouTube views versus box office, Nielsen ratings, or circulation numbers, etc.).
Gangnam Style also tells us a lot about cities in the early 21st century. The title of Psy’s song refers to the Gangnam district in Seoul, South Korea. The Gangnam district is known for its affluence, and is a hip and trendy neighborhood. This association, and the apparently mocking portrayal of lavish lifestyles in the music video, have led some commentators to interpret the song as a satirical and subversive critique of conspicuous consumption. It should be noted that Psy’s own comments about the meaning of the song do not support these interpretations. Regardless, the Gangnam Style example can help illustrate the valorization of cities that has been a trend of post-industrial economics and post-modern cultural practices. In the 1970s New York City went through a fiscal crisis. City services were sparse, the city government almost went broke, and crime and visible disorder in the city reached peak levels. As part of the city’s recovery and repositioning, the I <3 (love) NY branding campaign appeared. This campaign has remained hugely popular, and is representative of a postmodern consumption of the symbolic capital of cities. Another salient example would be the tote bags sold by American Apparel that just list names of global cities (Madrid, Tokyo, London, etc.). These cultural products, and the Gangnam Style song, are indicative of a revanchist return of capital to city centers. These examples, and indeed neighborhoods such as Seoul’s Gangnam, also point to the role of gentrification as a global urban strategy for development. In this way, Gangnam Style can serve as a vehicle for addressing some of the most pressing issues facing urban citizens today.