Julia Guarneri, University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Review by Jordan E. Taylor
It’s not often that historians are able to describe most Americans doing anything. But in her impressive Newsprint Metropolis: City Papers and the Making of Modern Americans, Julia Guarneri makes a convincing case that newspapers played an essential role in American life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At their height in the 1920s, she notes, as many as 95 percent of Americans read newspapers. Fin-de-siècle U.S. newspapers were remarkably sophisticated, cheap, and well read. They saturated rapidly-growing cities, but were also read in the suburbs and in some cases hundreds of miles away from their city of publication.
There was something for everyone in these thick metropolitan dailies. Whereas earlier papers had been limited to only a few pages, new technologies allowed editors to cheaply produce newspapers that were dozens, or even hundreds, of pages longer than their predecessors. They filled these pages with features targeted at women, the working classes, immigrants, children, and any group that might expand their circulation. Guarneri argues that the era’s rapidly-changing cities and its newspapers were mutually constitutive. Just as cities made newspapers, newspapers made cities. For example, immigration was closely entangled with advice columns, in which newcomers probed the unspoken rules of urban society. In the same way, Guarneri shows links between muckraking and civic reform, household features and suburbanization, and advertisements and consumerism.
Space is important to Guarneri. While the book’s early chapters focus on the city, its second half expands the frame to include metropolitan, regional, and national contexts. As publishers developed complex distribution networks, they were able to circulate their papers to rural and suburban readers. Chicago newspapers, for example, spread around the city’s considerable suburbs as well as much of the Midwest, and as far west as Wyoming. This helped readers to form a sense of themselves as not only residents of a city or town, but also as members of a larger region. In the same way, Guarneri’s final chapter examines how syndication, the process of licensing material for publication in newspapers around the country, helped to create a national mass culture, in which readers around the United States read the same coverage of celebrities, the same narration of a baseball game, and the same comic strips.
While this book will likely become the definitive study of turn-of-the-century newspapers, it will also appeal to those seeking a prehistory to the news media of the twenty-first century. Many commentators describe the loss of authority in the contemporary American news environment by referring to the present as a “post-truth” era. This phrase, and especially its prefix, invites questions. When did this era commence? Was the world ever truthful? Was there a “pre-truth” world? And might we recover this supposedly lost world of truthfulness? Guarneri is careful to avoid presentism. Even in her forward-looking epilogue, her voice remains that of a historian. But readers may not be so disciplined. It is difficult to read Guarneri’s book without wondering if the world she describes belongs to the imagined pre–“post-truth” golden age.
While most nineteenth-century U.S. papers were partisan, publishers began to turn away from these affiliations at the turn of the century. As Guarneri and others have documented, increasingly lucrative advertising dollars propelled this change. Instead of relying on subsidies and aid from parties to survive, publishers found that they could make more money by broadening their circulation (and thus increasing their ad rates). They did so by orienting their papers not toward a narrow partisan audience but to an entire city or region. This new model of an independent metropolitan newspaper quickly came to dominate major U.S. cities. Journalists began to think of themselves as “objective” observers, in contrast to their partisan predecessors.
But this new model did not come without a price. Instead of serving a political party, Guarneri argues, newspapers began to serve commercial interests. When the merchandising manager of the Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago found the local Daily News coverage about his store unsatisfactory, she recounts, he wrote to an editor, “I have just had occasion to sign a bill for advertising for the month of November to the Chicago Daily News Company amounting to $18,155.26. Would it not seem that we deserve a little better treatment?” (p. 48). As papers relied more on advertising, business and newspaper interests became entangled, and editors and writers went out of their way to avoid offending potential advertisers.
Moreover, in the twenty-first century United States, critics decry the decline of local, investigative reporting, but Guarneri reveals that readers a century earlier shared this sense of loss. The rise of syndication and chain newspapers in the early twentieth century allowed editors to fill their columns more cheaply than they could if they had employed local beat reporters. Some even made efforts to disguise the origins of these syndicated news pieces by altering them slightly to make them appear more local. But some readers preferred newspapers that focused on local news, and declined to subscribe to more homogenous, national chain papers, or ones that relied heavily on syndication.
As Guarneri shows, newspapers of the era had important, and troubling, limitations. In some ways, however, the era’s journalistic practices were aligned with the needs of democracy. If nothing else, as she notes in the epilogue, newspapers provided “a baseline level of public knowledge” (p. 247). To many readers living in an era shaped by partisan echo chambers, this will sound appealing. If nothing else, the readers of early-twentieth-century papers could agree on the basic facts constituting reality.
Yet as Guarneri suggests, newspapers also provided something that has not appeared in most accounts of the decline of media and truth. While commentators recognize the loss of shared standards of evidence, they have rarely identified the (perhaps greater) loss of a shared spirit of inquiry and surprise. By placing city, suburban, regional, national, and international news alongside advice columns, women’s pages, comic strips, classified sections, fiction, and editorials, Guarneri notes, newspapers licensed exploration, discovery, and serendipity. Readers stumbled onto materials that showed them unknown worlds and unfamiliar people—something that is becoming unfortunately rarer in an era of internet algorithms and social media. We see what we want to see, but not necessarily what we ought to see. Newsprint Metropolis reminds us that the challenge of navigating media in the twenty-first century is not, perhaps, a surfeit of truth, but of curiosity.
Jordan E. Taylor is a historian of American media and information. His research focuses on the politics of news in North America during the late eighteenth-century Age of Revolutions.