Journalism and Media in Global Urban History: A Q&A with Lila Caimari

The editors of the Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History join Lila Caimari, author of a forthcoming Element in the series, to talk about the volume, its relevance in the contemporary news landscape, and how the Element fits into Caimari’s research more broadly.

Your Element is about the history of journalism and the media. What does it mean to take a global and an urban approach to that topic?

The Element develops at the crossroads of two well-established traditions: one that studies the newspaper as a product of the city and analyzes it as a fundamental agent in the construction of urban identity; and the other, that looks at the expansion of news in the late nineteenth century, when newspapers extended their coverage to very distant locations, following a selection logic that had a bias towards urban news. At this junction, I find a new key for observing the relationship between the press and the city:  the role of newspapers in extending the construction of particular imaginaries and identities to the world horizon, in which each city is inserted in larger urban constellations.

Newspaper Readers at a Buenos Aires Railway Station, Early 20th Century. Archivo General de la Nación.

The media, and “fake news,” has been a topic of conversation in many countries, including the United States, for the past few years. Were you conscious of the contemporary relevance of the topic when writing your Element? Did this affect your approach?

The research behind this Element began a long time before the most recent debates about fake news. However, it’s clear that contemporary changes in the modes of circulation, fragmentation, and reformulation of news linked to the digital environment resonated with my concerns when studying the operations of “translation” that took place in the nineteenth century as news passed from location to location. And I did find many explicit instances of debate around fake news. For example, in the 1930s the Argentine state tried to buy cable infrastructure in order to avoid being accused of allowing the use of the national telegraph system for the circulation of fake news transmitted from overseas. This points to one particular area of concern, which leads to the submarine telegraph and its power to transmit news in particular ways—more fragmented than ever, with many more intermediaries (technical, linguistic, editorial), and so rapidly that contexts were easily lost. I believe that an analysis of the implicit challenges to implementing global systems for the dissemination of information helps to put some present-day problems into perspective. In this sense, I’m more interested in the broad question of the re-contextualized circulation of ever smaller pieces of information than in the phenomenon of plain and simple manipulation, another dimension of this story, which has more instrumental, and more evident explanations. 

Does the global urban history of journalism have any lessons about information literacy to offer us today?

The key insight of this study stems from the link between information and senses of place. Even the most chaotic, heterogeneous, and discontinuous visions produced by the mass media heed hierarchies of place that maintain a capital ordering power. There is an obvious gap between the attention given to cities and that given to rural areas, which have a much more tenuous existence in worldviews emerging from the news environment. The question of the hierarchization of space is already known, of course, but it doesn’t receive enough attention as a structuring factor in how people envision the world they inhabit, and it certainly hasn’t been sufficiently explored in historical perspective, and on national and regional scales.

Your Element focuses on the South American media landscape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How did you navigate the balance between the local and the global? Where do you see the particularities of Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Rio de Janeiro, and in which aspects was their media landscape more typical of global developments?

The core of my work deals with Buenos Aires, a port of immigrants, which means the city has always questioned its links with the wider world. It’s a city that was both remote and extremely connected to the main poles in the northern hemisphere; both remote and cosmopolitan. Informational globalization occurred there in intense and, at the same time, very unique ways. I emerged from this study more convinced than ever of the weight that local factors have in this type of analysis, particularly how they explain what kind of connection with the world a city has, with what effects—whether there is a lot or little connection and cosmopolitanism.

Newsstand in Buenos Aires, 1930s. La Nación.

Elements are intended to be accessible to lay readers and their length makes them easy to assign in classes. How do you imagine your Element might fit into a university curriculum? Which classes might you assign it for? With what other readings would you pair it?

This work could be read in tandem with studies on other dimensions of globalization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—immigration, the cosmopolitanization of certain cities, the emergence of global publics, etc. It would also work in media history courses, as a complement to studies on informational globalization, especially if we keep in mind that this field has seen little development of the more culturalist inflections favored in this Element, and that it remains heavily dominated by literature on Europe and the United States at the expense of work on other regions of the world. As is evident in the bibliography, my work also converses with recent studies in urban cultural history. It may function as a complement to reading in this area and, of course, to works on other dimensions of Latin America’s path toward globalization.

How is the topic of your Element related to, or a departure from, your previous work?

My work on this Element obliged me to go back to previous studies and to better focus on the question of the urban dimension, both from the point of view of the informational content and the distribution of that content in a new world horizon. In turn, this allowed me to develop arguments that were hazily sketched but not sufficiently developed, regarding the priority of topics of urban origin, the world map born from the connective constellation between cities, and the inflections of regional connectivity that hierarchized the links between cities instead of countries, among others. All of these ideas were underlying my previous work, and this Element helped me to formalize them.

What are you working on next?

I am working on a book that addresses the question of Buenos Aires and the world in the era of globalization, and of the emergence of the South American informational space, trying to account for the reasons for which this city would become such a dominant pole. Later, I would like to transfer these questions to smaller regional scales, returning to the imprint this dynamic made on the informational territorial map, connecting it with the question of Argentine national imaginaries.

Lila Caimari is a full-time researcher at CONICET in Buenos Aires. She has published extensively on the history of urban crime, the police and the prison experience in Argentina.She is also the author of numerous articles and book chapters about the social and cultural history of modern Argentina. Her latest book, La vida en el archivo (2017) is a collection of writings about the practice of historical research. She currently works on the history of news and news circuits in South America.

Featured image (at top): Greta Stern, Newspaper Stand in Buenos Aires (1956), Wikimedia Commons.

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