Robert E. Park’s “The Natural History of the Newspaper”

Doing some reading for a book project I’m working on I came across Park’s “The Natural History of the Newspaper” and had an idea. [The text is by Robert E. Park, who was associated with the famous Chicago School of urban sociology, and it was included in the edited volume of work by Park, Burgess and McKenzie (and Louis Wirth) originally published in 1925 (5th edition U Chicago P, 1968)].

There is, of course, much to be made of the differences between the country and the city (a dualism challenged by Raymond Williams later work holding them in dialectical tension, not to mention also in work by Lefebvre, specifically The Urban Revolution from 1970 which I’m also rereading) and so Park (an urban ‘scientist’ of sorts who thought of the city as a ‘laboratory’ but had plenty of interesting things to say despite the analytical/intellectual frame in which he said them) mentions that “Reading, which was a luxury in the country has become a necessity in the city.”

He goes on:

“It is not practicable, in a city of 3,000,000 and more, to mention everybody’s name. […]In this way news ceases to be wholly personal and assumes the form of art. It ceases to be the record of the doings of individual men and women and becomes an impersonal account of manners and life.”

“The motive, conscious or unconscious, of the writers and of the press in all this is to reproduce, as far as possible, in the city the conditions of life in the village. In the village everyone knew everyone else. Everyone called everyone by his first name. The village was democratic. We are a nation of villagers. Our institutions are fundamentally village institutions. In the village, gossip and public opinion were the main forces of social control.”

“‘I would rather live,’ said Thomas Jefferson, ‘in a country with newspapers and without a government than in a country with a government and without newspapers.'”

Now, besides the gratuitous Jefferson reference which reminds me of how at U.Va. in the undergrad course catalog offerings the Spanish Dept. pages would include a Jefferson quote saying “Pay attention to this language, it will only become increasingly important” or something to that effect, what is of interest is this question:

To what extent have facebook or other social media attempted to “reproduce, as far as possible, in the city the conditions of life in the village”? What would Park have said of social media? What would his “The Natural History of the Newspaper Social Media” have looked like, and what would more contemporary urban thinkers have to say?

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One thought on “Robert E. Park’s “The Natural History of the Newspaper”

  1. Pingback: Miejska gazeta raz jeszcze « nad miastem

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