American Newspapers and the Built Environment

The shrinkage of traditional news in size – staff reductions, circulation, ad revenue, profit – has been fairly well documented. But a different kind of transformation is slowly taking place now as news companies get out of the real-estate business: the abandoning of once-grand, overflowing newsrooms that are at once too big and at the same remarkably poorly-suited for work in the digital age. All across America, from newsrooms in Rochester, NY, to Detroit to Dayton to Los Angeles – the news buildings themselves are in varying stages of being bought and sold and repurposed. This project I’ve undertaken through Tow focuses the relationship between physical space, digital space and digital change in a post-industrial economy, but to assess what’s going on, we need to step back and offer a bit of a historical overview.

The newspaper as an institution has played a significant role in actually shaping the culture, structure, politics, and urban design of cities – the newspaper has been more than just building but civic engineer, as NYU professor Aurora Wallace argues in her book, Newspapers and the Making of Modern America: A History (2005). Tied up tightly into the history of news in America is a story of deliberate and strategic nation-building, city-building, corruption bating and busting. Particularly, according to Wallace, newspapers have played a key role in actually physically creating cities.

Initially, my starting point for this was project: to journey to newsrooms that quite literally had left their newsrooms for a new, post-industrial setting. These newsrooms had said goodbye to their physical history, leaving behind giant block-long buildings meant for composing rooms, staff 3x the size of their present newspapers, presses, and, in some cases, city centers. Digital workflow rather that physical, print workflow was the new focus of these newsrooms; the industrial legacy product, it seemed would take second place. I wanted to assess whether newsrooms that had left their newsrooms were indeed moving into a truly post-industrial world, where news hubs and mobile journalism would replace a fetishization of strictly routinized print production. The newsrooms that had left their newsroom seemed the most promising starting point for this journey: to see what happened when journalists had a chance for a do-over to meet today’s needs.

Wallace’s project takes a different approach and examines the larger urban environment as it has been constructed by newspapers. Back in the 20s and 30s, nearly all big newspapers had big publishers who in turn became somehow entangled in politics. William Randolph Hearst ran for president. Being publisher or editor of a newspaper often also meant sitting on development committees, sewer commissions, public works commissions, education panels, etc. But in specific instances, particularly Des Moines, Miami, Los Angeles, and Long Island, the city newspapers, their founders, and their publishers actually helped shape the built environment not just of a stray port but of an entire city and state. Notably, Des Moines and Miami were two key sites of my research.

In Des Moines, The Des Moines Register’s Cowles family undertook a particular strategy that helped make Iowa the politically significant state that it is today. The publishing family reasoned that the only way to keep advertising dollars growing was to keep circulation growing, and what this meant was making The Des Moines Register move beyond city center and into 56,000 miles of farm state. To keep newspapers relevant to people, the Cowles family wanted to figure out ways to get people news by the next day. So the family became particularly invested in supporting the creation of roads and trains. The goal was to have a newspaper distribution system in place for all 99 counties, and today, the roads and trains map onto the legacy of the Cowles family.

The place of Iowa in the political psyche is also due, in part, to the newspaper. The editorial position of speaking a pro-farmer position helped distinguish the Iowa point of view as “singular and important” (p. 36). The newspaper began using Gallup polls, thanks to George Gallup, a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, to measure public opinion as well as to determine what kinds of stories would have the most appeal.  Wallace argues that the constant printing of opinion polls showed that the state had a coherent point of view, and offered insight into the mood of people along political, economic and social issues. And because the Cowles believed, oddly, that no competition meant better journalism (and thus bought all the major newspapers in Des Moines), they felt free to cover news in-depth from a state-wide perspective. In this way, the newspaper was able to help establish Iowa, and its caucus, as singularly significant in being able to offer the pulse of the American electorate.

Probably, though, the post-war era underscores the most obvious ways in which newspapers played a significant role in the development of their city and their region. My favorite example from Wallace’s book is The Los Angeles Times. The Chandler family, The LA Times, owners, had a diversified portfolio of holdings, from aerospace to oil to rubber to automotive manufacturing to technology. The fact that Southern California is home to the roads, ports, and harbors that it has is due, in part, to the wide influence of the paper as producing coverage in favor of Chandler positions and as sign of influence of the Chandlers in city circles. The sprawl we see in Los Angeles is the deliberate result of the Chandlers belief that roads were the best way to move goods across land, and, of course, played to both the timing of rise of car culture in the U.S. and the automotive interests of the Chandler families.

The general position of the paper was to constantly promote Southern California (dubbing it the “Southland”) as a place of constantly wonderful weather with cheap land and good agriculture. The existence of the San Fernando Valley is due to the Chandlers. Sixty-thousand acres of land owned by a Chandler-syndicate was repurposed to give soldiers coming home from the war a slice of the American dream: their own home with easy access to the industrial plants where they could work. Literally what we know of as Los Angeles was geographically defined by where Chandler interests started and ended.  Through relentless boosterism, to the extent to which earthquakes were never mentioned as occurring in Los Angeles but in San Francisco, the population boomed.

The Miami Herald  and Newsday also played key roles in post-war America. Newsday literally figured out that it could fix its circulation problem if it created a circulation for itself, and its relentless promotion of Levittown and suburban living actually created the Long Island we know today. The Miami Herald was guilty of what Florida continues to be guilty of today—relentless land speculation. Cheap land and real estate was heavily promoted to northerners, and to the many GIs who had been trained in Florida for World War I. In fact, a 1925 edition of the then Miami Daily News had a 504-page issue of mostly real estate ads- a record for the largest newspaper ever printed (Wallace, p. 101).

Like The LA Times, The Miami Herald ignored hurricanes in its coverage, arguing that the worst thing Floridians could do for recovery would be talk about the hurricanes. That also meant that the newspaper did little to appeal for aid in rebuilding for fear of tarnishing the city’s image. Despite Miami’s role as the “Chicago of the South,” where rules on liquor, prostitution, vice, etc. were ignored by the beach community, the newspaper never touched the potentially sordid details. This, Miami Herald editors, reasoned, was why tourists were coming, and the newspaper did not want to hamper the easy access to all of this through dedicated work on corruption. Just cheery news.

The Miami Herald took on a more direct role in developing the build environment when the Knight brothers bought the paper in the depths of the recession and began remaking the city. They focused on better local utilities, better street paving (for celebrity automobiles), cleaning beaches, and downtown redevelopment – which culminated in the building along Biscayne Bay that The Miami Herald abandoned in 2013 for a building closer to the airport.

I find this history useful – it is a reminder of the power of the press and the people behind the press to create and shape the cities of old – and one wonders to what extent this still remains, particularly with respect to metropolitan dailies with diminishing circulations and potentially, stature. My focus has not been on the newspaper as the voice of the community, but the grounding of the project in looking at how newspapers have been used to shape an external, urban (and suburban) environment gives us some sense of how they, in turn, might be shaped by some of these same forces.