The history of American newspapers is well-trod terrain, and there is also no shortage of books chronicling the development of New York City. Aurora Wallace, a professor at New York University, has nonetheless found a novel way to explore the intersection of these topics. Media Capital focuses on the grand buildings that New York City newspapers of the past constructed as their headquarters.
Wallace draws some material from archival collections and unpublished papers, though the bulk of the evidence comes from articles in the newspapers themselves or previous academic works. The narrative begins [End Page 983] in the 1830s, with the birth of the penny press, and spans into the first part of the twenty-first century. A brief epilogue looks at the modern-day architectural efforts of the Hearst Corporation, the New York Times, and Time Warner. Considerably more space is devoted to the buildings of the New York Sun, the Herald, the Tribune, the Times, and the Daily News in the decades before World War II. To flesh out the book, Wallace includes a fair amount of history about specific newspapers. We also gain some biographical information about influential publishers and learn about other tangential factors (like press strikes) that influenced New York newspapers.
Wallace builds from the premise that “the newspaper constructed a new urban community” (p. 17), a statement that in the case of America’s most famed city is true in a literal and metaphorical sense. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, publishers commissioned some of the grandest buildings in the city. Architects borrowed from classical styles to emphasize tradition “while simultaneously displaying modern techniques and materials to signal … the future” (p. 31). Many of the city’s newspapers were first centered on Park Row, a downtown area with immediate access to both City Hall and Wall Street. In the 1890s, the New York Herald broke from tradition and moved uptown to Broadway and 34th Street, an area now known as Herald Square. Today, its most famous resident is Macy’s department store, and the proximity of this retail giant to the Herald newspaper was no accident. Indeed, the beneficial relationship between department stores and newspapers is a recurring theme of this narrative.
Perhaps the most vivid influence of newspapers on New York City’s development is Times Square, named for the most successful of all the city’s papers. Wallace says that the decision to move the New York Times’s headquarters north in the early 1900s was less risky than the Herald’s move because the main interchange for the subway system was already being developed at 42nd Street (p. 81). The new Times skyscraper was thus at a prime location for delivering newspapers to the booming metropolis. The layout of the streets, however, demanded narrow floors, and many of the paper’s functions were quickly relocated to a nearby annex. The symbolic value of the Times skyscraper was said to justify its cost, even if its function did not (p. 86).
Times Square remains a prime location for public spectacles, typified by the New Year’s ball drop. Wallace emphasizes this function of newspaper buildings in the past. In the years before ubiquitous information access, it was common for crowds to gather round newspaper buildings that displayed the latest updates (received via telegraph) about elections, baseball games, or natural disasters. Chapter 2 contains many details about this kind of public-information display. Accounts from the early 1900s describe how colored lights, stereopticons, and billboards along adjacent buildings of Park Row created a multimedia spectacle that attracted thousands of spectators. Just as contemporary television viewers can choose a [End Page 984] news channel that best reinforces their own worldview, spectators could similarly seek out the newspaper building that reflected their own politics.
While there are certainly a number of interesting morsels of information in this narrative, the book does a poor job of illustrating how the history of New York City newspaper buildings helps us understand the modern media landscape. This is a systematic...