Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeThemed issues11Media and the Urban Night

Media and the Urban Night

Will Straw


Along with the other materials and rituals of urban life, media have played a role in structuring the transition from day to night in cities. This essay examines a variety of ways in which the appearance and consumption of media have been interwoven with the 24-hour cycle of day and night. The rhythms of media availability have shifted throughout the past hundred years, in ways which have altered the experience of day and night. Similarly, media have devised a variety of forms, genres and styles with which to capture and express characteristics of the urban night.

Top of page

Index terms

Top of page

Full text


1Cities and media have each been the focus of rich theoretical work which addresses their relationships to time. In the case of cities, we may trace a tradition of thinking which runs from 19th century reflections on the velocities of urban modernity (summarized in Gleber 1999: 128-129) through the more systematic attempt in recent years to develop a “rhythmanalysis” (Lefebvre 2004) or “chrono-urbanism” (Gwiazdzinski 2013) of urban life. Analyses of the links between media and temporality have operated at various levels of scale and scope. They range from the trans-historical work of the Canadian historian Harold Innis on the temporal and spatial “biases” of particular media forms (Innis 1995) through phenomenologically-inspired treatments of the place of media in daily routines in Western countries (Scannell 1996).

2This article is an attempt to mobilize the concerns and insights of such work towards a consideration of media’s relationship to the night as it is lived in cities. The primary emphasis is on media forms which have participated in transformations of urban life since the middle of the nineteenth century. The geographical focus of this article is limited, with some exceptions, to the cities of North America and Western Europe. While this article is concerned principally with media forms we might consider “pre-digital”, we will turn, in our conclusion, to a consideration of digital media and their relationship to the night.

3By media, we designate those material and technological forms (like the theatrical film or the newspaper) through which cultural expression of various sorts is captured, stored and circulated. That expression is itself organized within genres (like the crime-oriented film noir) or formats (like the radio phone-in talk show) which are shaped by material features of the medium which carries them. Such expression, of course, participates in the broader circulation of social discourse. The film noir, for example, is traversed by conventions for representing the urban night, conventions which it shares with the photographic nocturne; the radio talk show, in its construction of a space of intimate dialogue, borrows from other practices of oral exchange, like the therapeutic conversation.

4This article will consider two broad modalities of the relationship between media and the urban night. The first of these modalities has to do with the role of media in structuring time, and, in particular, in organizing behaviors within the 24-hour cycle of night and day. This modality is shaped less by the expressive content of particular media than by the rhythms of their appearance and consumption. Major media of the 20th centuries, from radio through television, participate in what Paddy Scannell (1986) and others have called the “flow” of media content throughout the 24-hour cycle. This flow may a produce a sense of relatively undifferentiated time and mark the differences between day and night in only minor ways. Conversely, through the ways in which they appear, disappear or change their programming over the course of a day, media may endow different parts of the 24-hour cycle with distinct identities.

5The second modality of media’s relationship to the night is concerned with the ways in which media have made the night the basis of distinctive media content. In what ways, we might ask, have day and night provided different materials (events, identities, affective states) upon which the media have drawn in elaborating genres of content or discursive conventions? As we shall argue, media may engage the night in a variety of ways. In those media forms which treat the night as a range of activities and options, we identify an inventorial approach to the night, which seeks to catalogue the night’s diversity for a variety of purposes. In other media forms, which treat the night as a territory to be discovered or traversed, we may point to an exploratory engagement with the night, wherein the unfolding of the night serves to organize narrative or documentary textual forms. Finally, we will examine those media engagements with the night which work to find textual forms (styles and genres of media content) appropriate for expressing sensibilities deemed to be characteristic of the night. We have named such engagements experiential treatments of the night insofar as they labour to capture the night in its affective and stylistic dimensions.

Media and the organization of time: the nocturnalization thesis

6The history of 20th century media was marked by innumerable shifts in the availability of media throughout the 24-hour cycle of day and night. Newspapers, magazines, radio and television broadcasts, cinema showings and telephone usage have all seen their place within the 24-hour cycle transformed at different historical points. These shifts may confirm or challenge the thesis of “nocturnalization” offered by the historian Craig Koslovsky. The nocturnalization thesis suggests that there has been an “expansion of the legitimate social and symbolic uses of the night” across several centuries of Western history (Koslovsky 2011: 1). Examples of this nocturnalization include the movement of evening meals ever later in the 24-hour cycle across historical periods, or the pushing of theatrical performances in 19th century European cities to later and later times (Yon 2013: 47). Claims about the nocturnalization of cities often explain this process as resulting from the spread of lighting technologies in cities and the concomitant creation of public spaces of night-time entertainment and sociability. Those who diagnose a nocturnalization of urban life often point to the pushing of public discourse, of civic speech and artistic expression, later and later into the night.

7The question of whether there has been a nocturnalization of media over the last century invites a careful response. Testing the nocturnalization thesis in relation to media must rely on a variety of highly disparate forms of data: the timing of newspaper editions, programming trends in television and radio broadcasting, the schedules for movie theatres, use patterns for the internet and so on. In 1978, American sociologist Murray Melbin could point to a variety of developments as indicating a general expansion of night-time leisure activities and provisions in U.S. cities: “There are all-night supermarkets, bowling alleys, department stores, restaurants, cinemas, auto repair shops, taxi services, bus and airline terminals, radio and television broadcasting, rent-a-car agencies, gasoline stations” (1978: 5). The all-night availability of media which Melbin noted was part of a general increase in what might be called the provisioning of the 24-hour city.

8Nevertheless, it is difficult to disentangle a given medium’s relationship to the 24-hour cycle from the longer arcs of its rise and decline, the competitive situations in which it exists and its imbrication within other social practices and infrastructures. It is clear, for example, that the publishing of multiple editions of newspapers throughout the 24-hour cycle, once common in the metropolitan West, declined in the latter decades of the 20th century. Indeed, by the 1970s, the daily lifecycle of most major newspapers was characterized by the exclusivity of a single morning edition and the disappearance of evening editions. If this suggests a decline in evening newspaper reading, that decline did not signal a broader shrinking of media consumption after day’s end. Most cases of media decline are bound up with the migration of attention from one medium to another, such that media forms divide up the day, in part because of the connection of individual media to other technologies, such as those of transportation. As Peter Preston argues, the cause of the evening newspaper’s decline in Great Britain in the decades after World War II

“was a combination of malignant factors. People didn’t work set hours in offices and factories any longer, they worked at home or in industrial estates on the edge of town; they drove home rather than got a train: they found they couldn’t get an evening paper delivered any longer because the traffic was too impenetrable: and the paper they could sometimes get because it went to press at noon rather than 3.30 didn’t have any of the facts that drove purchase . . . no late racing results or cricket scores, for instance. You could get that stuff on TV anyway, in the office canteen, in the betting shop, in the pub, off Ceefax or the radio (never mind the Net!). So the reason for buying a paper which often wasn’t in the right place at the right time anyway, was hugely diminished” (quoted in Bob Franklin 2008: 633).

Shifting temporalities of 20th century media

9Even as the evening newspaper was disappearing in many countries, from the 1950s onward, television programming in such countries expanded, from a few hours in early and mid-evening, to fill the 24-hour cycle. In 1978, Murray Melbin showed how the number of 24-hour radio stations in Boston had grown from 0 in 1949 to 15 (or 57% of all stations in the city) by 1974. Twenty-four-hour television broadcasting in the same city began only in 1974, when a single station initiated around-the-clock programming (1978: 4). David Hendy has traced the countervailing tendencies in radio broadcasting in the United States, from the 1940s onward. On the one hand, the emergence of television in the late 1940s significantly eroded evening radio listening in the United States. “[B]y 1952,” he writes, “the number of Americans listening each evening had fallen by two-thirds in the space of just four years” (Hendy 2010: 215). Conversely, the introduction of the portable transistor radio in 1954 spurred practices of listening in which radio was not required to compete with television for exclusive and collective attention in households. Young people could now listen to their transistor radios in the evening while their parents watched television in domestic living rooms. Adolescents could carry their radio receivers out into spaces of night-time sociability. The portability of radios allowed for the multiplication of listening contexts and encouraged the late-night consumption of radio programs; night-time radio programming, in turn, become increasingly oriented towards youth (Hendy 2010: 216).

10The availability of public cinema screenings throughout the 24-hour cycle was marked by great variation across places and periods during the 20th century. In McKernan’s discussion of the first movie houses in London, England, he notes that cinemas in 1906 ran continuous programs “from midday to 9pm”, but that the key target audience for certain cinemas in the city centre was “city clerks seeking cheap, quick entertainment during their lunch hours” (McKernan 2007: 129). Afternoon screenings of films continue through the present (they are offered at the major cinemas in Montreal, where I live), but are no longer the most well-attended, as movie-going has become a social activity associated with the evening. As is well-known, a broader sense of movie-going as either an impromptu or a habitual activity declined considerably in the latter half of the 20th century, as it came to be centred on the consumption of individual films, usually in the evening, rather than of programs of several hours’ duration, which might be entered at any time of the afternoon or evening. All-night cinema programs, once common in the largest of cities, are now extremely rare. When we come across 24-hour cinemas represented in older works of fiction, like the 1947 Hollywood film Crossfire (dir. Edward Dmytryk), they stand as exotic examples of an urban life now gone. These representations seem all the more strange because film going in the middle of the night is shown as a casual rather than highly special activity. Late-night or all-night screenings are now eccentric exceptions to normal exhibition patterns, institutionalized in the cult midnight screening or the drive-in cinema’s “dusk to dawn” multiple-film bill.

11The decline of all-night film screenings in Western countries was roughly contemporaneous with the use of films as key elements of late-night television programming. In her book on the rise of “retro culture”, Elizabeth Guffey notes how late-night television programming in the United States came to be dominated in the early 1960s by Hollywood films which had been made decades earlier. In this period, she points out, “more than 200 inter-war films aired weekly in the New York City area” (Guffey 2004: 75), large numbers of them in late-night slots. From the 1960s onwards, the migration of film studio inventories to television stations throughout Canada, the United States, Mexico and other national cultures encouraged these stations to continue their programming later into the night than had previously been common.

12At least two logics of night broadcasting may be noted here. In one, the night comes to be associated with a cultural past and thus distinguishes itself from an evening generally dominated by the contemporary. From early 1960s "late shows" through the more recent programming of the U.S. cable television service "Nick at Night"(which specializes in television programs one or more decades old), one may observe the rough outlines of a pattern whereby temporal distance from mid-evening corresponds to an aging of the programming being disseminated. The late night, in this respect, becomes a repository of cultural memory and a time for reconnection with a cultural past.

13A second logic, not unrelated to the first, has meant that late night television programming is usually less expensive to purchase or produce than that shown in prime-time. Older films and syndicated television programs can be purchased by television networks at reduced rates relative to the costs of new programs or recent films. Likewise, American television talk shows, which follow each other in sequence on several networks, seem to follow a line of descending production values. The historical reasons for this are obvious: late-night audiences are smaller than those for prime-time programming and, as a result, the advertising revenues available are lower. The historical effect of these logics, in North American audiovisual culture, has been a longstanding association of late night with the experience of cultural degradation. Before it was the title of a popular present-day American talk show, the phrase "late, late show" functioned in popular discourse to designate out-of-date, forgotten films from the past.

Representing the urban night: inventorial media

14Of the various ways in which media engage with the urban night, the most prosaic are what might be called the inventorial. Inventorial, here, refers to those media forms and content genres whose principal purpose is that of providing lists of events occurring at night in cities. If the inventorial is primarily a genre of the night, this is because it is concerned in specialized fashion with the regularized schedules of entertainment and cultural institutions, rather than seeking to capture the widely dispersed and elusive variety of social, economic and political activities which transpire during the day. While urban dwellers typically participate in day-time activities as a result of routines and obligations (to work or school) of which they need not be reminded, the night is constructed for large numbers of people as a field of options and opportunities. This sense of night-time activity as involving selection from a range of possibilities has given rise to a variety of media -- most of them print-based -- which provide inventories of these possibilities.

15Examples of inventorial media include list-like guides to night-time activity within cities, typically addressed both to tourists and to a city’s inhabitants. In most large sized cities, guides to cultural and entertainment have proliferated and experimented with a variety of formats and modes of discourse. In the first half of the 20th century, publications like New York Amusements, Cue, Gotham Life and Bill Myer’s Inns and Outs and many others of variable endurance fulfilled this inventorial function for New York City, and examples could be found in most other cities. These publications, typically of regular (usually weekly) frequency, distinguished themselves from book-like tourist guides (exemplified in recent years by the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet series) which offer lists of stable attractions and amenities rather than announcements of punctual events.

16Since the late 20th century, two specific variants of the inventorial periodical have become dominant. One is the tourist guide magazine, typically distributed free in hotel rooms and aimed at a readership presumed to be prosperous and conventional in its tastes and habits. The engagement of these magazines with the urban night is typically more limited than is the case with the alternative cultural weekly. Whether published by private concerns (like the long-running Current Events in Montreal) or by municipal tourist offices (like the Los Angeles Visitors Guide) the tourist magazine typically covers a range of activities which stretch only into the mid-evening, with dining serving as the conventional end-point in day’s itinerary.

Inventorial media: the cultural weekly newspaper

17The other form of inventorial media to be discussed here is the cultural weekly, the free newspaper whose lists of cultural events has been central to its appeal. In North American cities, the free cultural weekly typically emerged out of the underground press of the 1950s and 1960s. This was the case, for example, for the Village Voice in New York and the Georgia Strait in Vancouver, British Columbia. A second wave of alternative, cultural weeklies came in the 1980s, often coinciding with (and sometimes in direct response to) the spread of alternative music scenes in the years which followed the emergence of punk culture. In Montreal, for example, the English-language Mirror (founded in 1985) and French-language Voir (1986) both based their initial appeal on the coverage of expanding local music scenes to which mainstream daily newspapers paid little attention, and drew a significant part of their advertising revenues from local music venues. More broadly, we may see the cultural weekly newspaper as responding to the spread, from the 1980s onwards, of alternative cultural activities (like spoken-word performances, fringe theatre festivals, revivals of cabaret and burlesque, and parallel art galleries) ignored by dominant media. Almost all of these activities participated in a renewal of the culture of night in cities, in many cases anticipating later waves of gentrification or urban resettlement. Coverage by cultural weeklies of the day-time life of cities (of their government and business sectors, for example) is usually limited in scope and resources and secondary to their appeal.

18The decline of cultural weeklies in the 2000’s has been precipitous. Only one of the four Montreal weeklies published in 2000 has survived, for example, and titles are ceasing publication throughout North America (Doig 2012). The broader migration of newspaper readership and advertising revenues to the internet is the key reason for this decline, but this migration has multiple facets which warrant being distinguished. From the 1980s onwards, a key source of revenues for weekly newspapers in North America was the classified-style advertising for escort sexual services and sex-chat telephone lines which filled their back pages. These revenues have eroded sharply as a result of several factors, including the movement of sexual commerce to the internet and legal or regulatory challenges which have made the operation of these services difficult or impossible. While alternative sources of this advertising revenue have sometimes been found – for example, the Los Angeles-based weekly The L.A. Times now features pages of advertisements by medical doctors offering prescriptions for “medical marijuana” – this important source of money for the cultural weekly has for the most part evaporated. At the same time, the listings of musical and other cultural events, which were one source of the cultural weekly’s appeal (and which ensured that readers kept them in their homes for an entire week, enhancing their appeal to advertisers) have become of little use as urban dwellers now go directly to the internet sites of cultural venues to learn about their programming.

19The weekly cultural newspaper has been the most night-oriented of what we have called inventorial media forms, not merely because it serves a guide to night-time cultural activities, but through its openness to forms of artistic, sexual and political transgression which are, both empirically and stereotypically, associated with the night.

Representing the urban night: exploratory media

20The inventorial guide to urban night-life has typically been organized in the vertical form of the list. A contrasting form of media engagement with the night has taken the form of the narrative journey into the night. We call this form exploratory, insofar as it is usually organized as a linear voyage of discovery, with the night treated as a territory to be explored. Exploratory engagements with the night run may be traced back through several centuries of journalistic and literary discourse. In his recent book Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, Matthew Beaumont (2015) traces the variety of literary forms of medieval and early modern London which recounted the experience of nocturnal walks through the city. Exploration of the urban night, in its oneiric and romantic dimensions, would be central to the masculinist literary sensibility of later pre-romantic and romantic writers, such as Restif de la Bretonne (1788-89). In Victorian London, as Judith R. Walkowitz has shown, the journey through the urban night in search of sensation was increasingly tied to a reformist impulse which treated the dangers and temptations of the nocturnal city as symptoms of social decay. The night-journey persisted as a motif in important works of the 20th century avant-garde, such as André Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja (1962) and has been a recurrent narrative device within cinema at all levels of prestige and ambition (Straw, 2015).

Journalistic explorations of the night

21On October 17, 2014, the New York Times published a lengthy article entitled "In New York City, Sunday Night Is for Regulars" (Correal 2014). The report followed a well-established journalistic form, that of the night-time journey through a large city. The author/journalist ventured into the Manhattan night in order to discover the sorts of people who frequented places of night-time congregation and the varieties of behaviour in which they engaged. The article interviewed people patronizing late-night bars and restaurants, and found, in places and practices usually ignored in journalistic coverage of the city, vestiges of an older urbanity.

22Nearly a century earlier, in the New York-based scandal magazine Broadway Brevities, a 13-part series of articles titled "Nights in Fairyland" followed a reporter as he visited the sites of late-night gatherings of gays and lesbians in Manhattan (Broadway Brevities 1924-1925). Most of these places were hidden from public view, in the backrooms of other establishments or concealed behind solid doors in basement hideaways. Here, as in the 2014 New York Times article, the urban night was treated as an uncharted, unknown world whose characters and rituals were perceived as sufficiently strange to warrant coverage in these highly narrativized journalistic treatments.

23Of the many differences between these two recounted journeys, a principal one has to do with the ways in which the night is imagined in relationship to social change. In 2014, those people encountered in the Manhattan night were, for the most part, familiar social types associated with the city’s past and suspected of no longer inhabiting the city: the elderly of reduced means, the working class, and others who invoked an older, convivial New York as it existed before recent waves of gentrification. In the "Nights in Fairyland" series of 1924-25, the night worlds discovered were, on the contrary, those of emerging communities, of behaviours or values deemed transgressive and novel in relation to a dominant moral order.

24Those media treatments of the night which we designate as exploratory have long moved between these divergent visions of the nocturnal city - between a view of the night as a memory-space, in which residual lifestyles and habits find refuge from the corrosive effects of changes associated with the day, and a vision of the night as the optimal time/space of experimentation and innovation. These figures are condensed in Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), whose vampire heroes are both archaic survivors of centuries-old histories and participants in the present-day settlement of hipster destinations like Detroit and Tangiers. This double sense of urban night worlds is captured, as well, in Dominique Kalifa’s survey of 19th century journalistic and fictional journeys through the bas fonds (the lower depths) of European cities like Paris (Kalifa 2013). For Kalifa, the night spaces of criminality and bohemian lifestyle discovered (or invented) by the authors he studied functioned, on the one hand, as vestiges of medieval obscurity lingering in a city which was in the process of being transformed according to the principles of modern urban planning. At the same time, the immigrant and transient populations depicted as inhabiting these depths were, in important ways, distinctly new; they stood for a social heterogeneity which could easily be diagnosed as typical of an emerging modernity.

25The media texts described above exemplify the exploratory mode by which media have engaged with the urban night. The night, in this mode, is the time/space of a journey, typically organized as a series of encounters with people and places. Among the media forms in which this mode has been most common, we may point to documentary films which examine a city through the device of a voyage through its nightlife, such as the Canadian film Montreal by Night (dir. Arthur Burrows, Jean Palardy 1947) or the French film Paris la nuit (dir. Jacques Baratier, Jean Valère 1960). Another variant of this exploratory mode is the semi-pornographic urban exposé, a journalistic form which employs the structure of the investigative journey so as to organize the presentation of content of an exploitative and titillating character (see Straw 1997).

Representing the urban night: experiential media

26The exploratory form borrows, from the inventorial, the sense of the night-time city as a collection of places to be discovered. It adds, to that sense of inventory, the narrative momentum of the voyage, smoothing out the fragmentary character of the list within the coherence of narrative. In our final form, the experiential, media seek to inhabit the night and absorb its affective and rhetorical force. The focus here is less on how media document the night than on the ways in which media forms seek to produce styles and forms of content deemed to express something of a night-time sensibility. In looking at these experiential media, our definition of media is deliberately large, embracing forms of cultural expression, like fine-art painting, photography and the musical work, which are typically excluded from more information-centred definitions of media. In the musical and visual arts, for example, the category of the nocturne designates a cluster of themes and styles intended to express the quality of “nightness” (Sharp 2008). In cinema, the label film noir emerged in the 1940s to designate works in which a visual stylization of the night was tied to a thematic of nocturnal mystery and obscurity. Since the late 19th century, newspapers and magazines have featured journalistic writing which, produced in close proximity to spaces of night-time bohemian sociability, strives to infuse itself with elements of the orality (whether scandalous or convivial) deemed to distinguish these spaces. Night, in these cases, is not simply a set of events or experiences to be recounted, but a distinct life-world requiring (or inspiring) distinctive rhetorical or representational practices. While these styles and forms enumerated here are vulnerable to idealizing or ideological prejudices about the night, they have produced some of the richest cultural engagements with nocturnal life. In particular, they have served to counter habits which see the proper work of media as that of translating the experiences of night into frameworks of understanding which belong to the day.

Experiential forms: the orality of nightlife journalism

27Among the primary examples of the experiential mode to be discussed here are those forms of print culture journalism, ascendant in the late 19th century and in decline by the end of the twentieth, which emerged alongside new kinds of urban nightlife. The most emblematic of these forms was the night-life column or chronicle, usually written by someone who was fully participant in the cultures of nocturnal bohemianism or entertainment culture. Rather than the night serving here a simply a realm of information to be recounted, it functions, rather, as a sensibility modulating cultural expression, with results which have often been transformative in the history of journalistic forms. This version of our experiential mode is distinct from the strictly inventorial in that the recounting of specific night-time events is secondary to the assumption of a journalistic voice and vantage point which are intended to embody the sensibility of the social world being written about.

28The emergence of what, in English, is called “nightlife” is normally traced to shifts in patterns of sociability in Western cities from the middle of the 19th century onwards. Key among these shifts was the movement of upper-class socializing outside of private homes and into new meeting spaces like cabarets, restaurants and cafés. These spaces, while usually privately-owned, produced scenes of conviviality either directly visible to urban publics, through the combination of windows and interior lighting, or as enclosed spaces whose points of entry were observable from the street outside. Sharpe traces this expansion of nightlife in London to the installation of gaslight, in 1807 (2008: 2). Gleber, writing of the 19th century European city, speaks of a general increase in urban intensity, in which bright lights and fast-moving rapid transit systems functioned as sources of new “sensory stimuli” (Gleber 1999: 25). New forms of print culture, like the popular newspaper and the sensational magazine, would take their place among these stimuli even as they laboured to render it intelligible.

29The emergence of media forms which engaged with this night-life occurred gradually and differentially across cities in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. We may briefly isolate two broad instances of this engagement, each of which participates in the elaboration of a new, experiential treatment of the urban night within media. One emerges in Paris and other Western cities around the new spaces of urban artistic bohemia -- the cafés and cabarets of late 19th and early 20th cultural life. The night-time chronicler, in these contexts, participates in the complex and overlapping networks which constitute this informally-organized night-world. Didier and others have written of the role of small Parisian magazines, like le Chat Noir, not simply in covering this night-world, but in acting as nodes through which its discourses travelled and serving as points of entry for those coming to this world from the outside (Didier 2009: 20; Garvin 1992: 7). The literary scholar Guillaume Pinson has written in more formal terms of the new networks and discursive articulations which characterized these night-worlds, and of the role of the periodical chronicler or columnist in making these visible (Pinson 2008: 52). What Pinson calls "la société mondaine" (a term for which there is no adequate English-language translation) "is an ensemble of interconnected networks -- familial, professional, political, artistic" whose various links the chronicler must map. "Each announcement, each piece of the mosaic, is a point in this nebulous mondaine, whose reach is theoretically infinite and in which there is no stable point of reference, unlike what existed under the Ancien Régime, and even during the first half of the 19th century, when the court and a few salons were unifying centres" (Pinson, 2008: 52; my translation). Pinson is describing new spaces of sociability outside of the traditional institutions of high society, but he is also mapping the contours of new night-worlds whose flux and permeable boundaries required new sorts of chroniclers.

30Similar spaces were emerging, at the end of the 19th century, in North American cities, like New York, Montreal or Mexico City. Sergio Rodriguez’ account of cafés, bars and other places of night-time bohemian life in 20th century Mexico City describes the back-and-forth between the orality of the night-world and the literature which, produced within that world, transmitted some of its energies (Rodriguez 1990). In the United States, a key figure in this transmission was the gossip columnist, who came to occupy a privileged position within what, early in the 20th century, came to be known as "Café Society" (Gabler 1994: 183). Major chroniclers of this café society, like the journalist Walter Winchell, moved from the domain of insider theatrical news to the format of the daily newspaper’s gossip column - in Winchell’s case, from The Vaudeville News to the New York Daily News. His columns, which I have described elsewhere, were organized as short "bits" or phrases of gossipy news, separated by three dots (Straw, 2008). The new form of the American gossip column absorbed both the orality of the whispered rumour and the technologically-mediated rhythms of the telegraph key.

31From the late 19th century onward, informational print media found themselves pulled between the competing attractions of two primarily oral forms of urban discourse. One of these was the discourse of established authority, of political, judicial and economic systems, reworked and reported by journalists covering the day-time city. The other was the more elusive complex of discourses of night-time orality: of theatrical presentations, literary readings, and the gossip exchanges which occurred within the public culture of bars or cafés. The difference between these discourses shaped the internal differentiation of roles and sections within the 20th century newspaper– between economic and political news, on the one hand, and entertainment or cultural coverage, on the other. These divisions were not strictly isomorphic with that between the day and night, but they reproduced it to a remarkable extent.

32The gossip column and society chronicle persist within websites like Buzz-Feed and tabloid newspapers like the New York Daily News. What has disappeared is their intimate relationship to the urban night, to the interconnected networks of nocturnal sociability which Pinson has described and in which columnists like Walter Winchell spent much of their lives. These journalistic forms are more likely, in the present, to be compiled from multiple electronic sources and thus detached from the rituals and spaces of urban night-life.

Experiential media forms: intimacy and late-night transgression

33The notion of a distinctive night-time sensibility runs through the history of media forms. The programming strategies of commercial radio stations in the late 20th century were often based on the principle that night-time music should be more up-tempo and rhythmic while the music of the morning should stress human emotions and performer personality (e.g., Billboard 1980). The claim underlying these strategies - that night-time culture is more embodied and effervescent than that of the day - is longstanding. It is confirmed, at least in part, in the time-sequencing of cultural activities in cities, which normally sets the static arts of exhibition in the day and the arts of performance in the evening or night (Straw 2014: 196). This claim figures, as well, in arguments to the effect that forms of artistic expression which engage with the night are more likely to manifest elements of the haptic or corporeal, and are thus distinct from artistic representations of the day, which are somehow more singularly lifeless and visual in character (Flécheux 2009: 124; Renard 1999/2000: 49).

34Other versions of a nocturnal cultural sensibility may be found in the history of the broadcast talk show. In her study of late night urban radio in the United States in the 1960s, Elena Razlogova shows how the night emerged as the time of a “free-form” approach to programming, “Night radio” was marked both by the violation of day-time proprieties (through an engagement with sexual themes, for example) and by modes of address which drew clear distinctions between those listeners who partook of a night-time worldview (characterized by a hip open-mindedness and cynicism) and others (the “squares”) who were dismissed as people of the day (Razlogova 2014). In recent years, these distinctions between a daytime and nighttime sensibility have settled around late-night satirical political talk-shows on U.S. television (like The Today Show). Free from the constraints of journalistic standards of political balance, these programs build their modes of address upon real or presumed political solidarity with their audiences, and thus speak in the intimate language of a common worldview. The night, in this sense, is the time of ideological affinities and heightened subversions.


35Transitions between day and night continue to function as broad organizing principles in most societies, shaping behaviours and creating distinct agglomerations of media delivery. We may, for example, see morning as a time of reinsertion into the social world and its information flows, and trace patterns of media use and availability which correspond to this reinsertion. Evening, conventionally, marks a shift from work to leisure, and from workplace to home as the place of media consumption. Both morning and evening are characterized by the absorption of huge populations within transportation systems in which media, such as free commuter newspapers or video display screens, play a supporting role. The night, which falls between both instances of this absorption, will be marked by its own media habits and objects.

36The character and availability of media have obviously been transformed in the 21st century by the internet, mobile devices and the endless variety of digital media forms. The role of all of these transformations in altering media’s relationship to the urban night is unclear. The question of whether there is a night-time internet may be pursued from several directions. Content alerts for online news sites, institutional inventories of protected spam email, Ebay search results and other forms of consolidated content are typically sent during the night, either just after midnight or at early morning times presumed to be those at which users first access their digital devices each day. We may also find, across the internet, innumerable examples of the inventorial, exploratory and experiential treatments of the night discussed earlier in relation to pre-digital media. Indeed, the internet abounds with urban entertainment listings, chronicles of night-time journeys through cities and visual or journalistic versions of the urban nocturne.

37Nevertheless, the rise of digital media has produced new global inequities in the availability of media across the 24-hour cycle of day and night. In a 2014 article entitled “The Internet Sleeps at Night. Really,” journalist Robert Macmillan (2014) described the dramatic night-time reduction in internet usage in India and those regions of Africa in which access is available. When users rely, for internet connection, on public or commercial institutions (like libraries and cafés), they are subject to closing hours which are likely to be shaped by tradition or economic constraint. The closing of the internet, then, follows the broader shutting down of public life. The maps of global internet availability and usage which accompanied Macmillan’s report showed a world in which, for large parts of the world, an informational darkness followed the setting of the sun.

Top of page


Beaumont M. 2015. Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. Londin, Verso.

Billboard. 1980. Warsaw, Mo., Station Will Emphasize MOR/Country. July 5: 25.

Breton A. 1962. Nadja. Paris, Gallimard (revised and corrected edition).

Broadway Brevities. 1924-1925. Nights in Fairyland. Parts 1-13. January, 1924 - January, 1925.

Correal A. 2014. In New York City, Sunday Night is for Regulars. New York Times, October 17, 2014, (Accessed 17 October 2014).

Crary J. 2013. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London, Verso.

De la Bretonne N. R. 1788-1789. Les nuits de Paris, ou le Spectateur-nocturne. London.

Didier B. 2009. Petites revues et esprit bohème à la fun du XIXe siècle (1878-1889). Paris, L’Harmattan.

Doig, W. 2012. Goodbye, alt-weeklies. Salon, 6 October. (Retrieved 28 October 2014).

Franklin B. 2008. The Future of Newspapers. Journalism Studies 9 (5): 630-641.

Gabler N. 1994. Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

Gavin J. 1992. Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. New York,Limelight Editions.

Guffey E. 2004. Retro: The culture of revival. London, Reaktion Books.

Gwiazdzinski L. 2013. Quel temps est-il ? Eloge du chrono-urbanisme. Vues sur la ville 30: 2.

Haas S. 2000. Visual Discourse and the Metropolis: Mental Models of Cities and the Emergence of Commercial Advertising. In Wishcermann C. and Shore, E. (eds.) Advertising and the European City: Historical Perspectives. Aldershot, shgate: 54-78.

Hendy D. 2010. Listening in the Dark. Media History 16:2: 215-232.

Hobbs D., P. Hadfield, S. Winlow and S. Hall. 2000. Receiving shadows: governance and liminality in the night-time economy. British Journal of Sociology 51 (4): 701–717.

Flécheux C. 2009. ‘La nuit, poreuse et pénétrante’. La mise en cause de la perspective dans la nuit. in Montandon A (ed) Promenades nocturnes. Paris, L’Harmattan: 123-135.

Gleber A. 1999. The Art of Taking a Walk: Flanerie, Literature, and Film in Weimar Culture. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Kalifa D. 2013. Les Bas-Fonds: Histoire d’un imaginaire. Paris, Seuil.

Lefebvre H. 2004. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Translated by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. London and New York, Continuum.

McMillan R. 2014. “The Internet Sleeps at Night. Really.”, Wired, October 20. (accessed December 10, 2015).

McKernan L. 2007. Diverting Time: London’s Cinemas and Their Audiences, 1906–1914. The London Journal, 32 (2): 125–144.

Pinson G. 2008. Fiction du monde: De la presse mondaine à Marcel Proust. Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal.

Rabinowitz P. 2002. Black & White & Noir: America’s Pulp Modernism. New York, Columbia University Press.

Razlogova E. 2014. Freeform Radio in North American Musical Nightlife, 1963-2014. Paper presented at the conference “The Urban Night: Issues of culture, security and inclusion”, McGill University, Montreal, 7 August.

Rodriguez S. G. 1990. Los bajos fondos : El antro, la bohemia y el café. Mexico City, Cal y arena.

Innis H. 1995. The Bias of Communication. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan M. (1994) [1964]. Understanding Media. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

Melbin M. 1978. Night as Frontier. American Sociological Review 43: 3-22.

Orbach B. Y., L.Einav. 2007. Uniform prices for differentiated goods: The case of the movie-theater industry. International Review of Law & Economics. (Retrieved October 15, 2014).

Razlogova E. 2014. Freeform Radio in North American Musical Nightlife, 1963-2014. Paper presented at the conference The Urban Night: Issues of culture, security and inclusion. Montreal, McGill University, 7 August.

Renard C. 1999/2000. La nuit: durée, espace, noir. Cinergon 8/9: 49-54.

Scannell P. 1986. Radio Times: The Temporal Arrangements of Broadcasting in the Modern World. Paper presented at the International Television Studies Conference. London, England, 10-12 July.

Scannell P. 1996. Radio, Television and Modern Life: A Phenomenological Approach. Oxford, Blackwell.

Sharpe W. C. 2008. New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Straw W. 1997. Urban Confidential: The Lurid City of the 1950s. In Clarke David B. (ed) The Cinematic City. London, Routledge: 110-128.

Straw W. 2008. Squawkies and Talkies. Parallax 4(2): 20-30.

Straw W. 2014. The Urban Night. In Darroch, M and Marchessault J. (eds) Cartographies of Place: Navigating the Urban. Montreal, McGill-Queens University Press: 185-200.

Straw, W. 2015. Chrono-Urbanism and Single-Night Narratives in Film. Film Studies 12(1): 46-56.

Walkowitz J. R. 1992. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. Chicago: The Universityof Chicago Press.

Yon J.-C. 2013. Des théâtres dans la nuit. Le magasin du xixe siècle 3: 43-48.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Will Straw, Media and the Urban NightArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 11 | 2015, Online since 24 November 2016, connection on 01 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Will Straw

Will Straw is Professor within the Department of Art History and Communications Studies at McGill University. He is the author of Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in 1950s America, and the editor of numerous volumes, including Circulation and the City (with Alex Boutros), and Formes urbaines (with Anouk Bélanger and Annie Gérin). His current research focuses on the place of media within the 24-hour daily cycle, networks of production and circulation within fan cultures and media treatments of crime. Email:

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search