For months, the journalism world had been abuzz with the rumor that Ralph Ingersoll, the editorial genius behind Time, Fortune, and Life, was leaving Henry Luce to start his own publication. Supposedly, it was going to be a daily newspaper in New York City.
Finally, on the morning of June 18, 1940, Ingersoll was poised to unveil what he called not only a new newspaper, but a new kind of paper—a smart, ad-free, unabashedly liberal, writer’s paper, one with the wit of a magazine and the pace of a daily. It was to be called PM, and after many months of fundraising, designing, and fretting, it was ready.
Then, the fire department showed up.
During the frenzy to prepare the first edition, smoke began wisping through the PM newsroom near the corner of Sixth Avenue and Bergen Street in Brooklyn. While firefighters tromped around looking for the source (it turned out to be a minor blaze, most likely from an errant cigarette), Ingersoll and the staff soldiered on and got the paper out.
Because there were no ads, PM had to be priced higher than the other dozen or so dailies in the city. Still, it had attracted more than 150,000 charter subscribers, and vendors at newsstands across the city were waiting. Months of pre-launch hype in other publications ensured that PM would not be overlooked; as the trucks rolled out, customers swarmed them, forcing the drivers to stop and sell copies out the back. People were offering quarters for a paper priced at a nickel. By day’s end, the entire press run—some 450,000 copies—was gone.
The only problem was that the charter subscribers, the ones who were going to sustain the paper until it was profitable, never got copies of that first edition. The PM circulation manager lost the postcards with their names and addresses. This was typical of the way things went at PM. During the eight years it was published, it was a hell of a newspaper but a disaster as a business.
It was an appropriately uneven beginning for a daily with big ambitions that blazed an important, if not widely acknowledged, trail across American journalism, then burned out as quickly as it came. Today’s new-media startups will no doubt recognize in PM’s story the money woes, the chaotic business practices, the struggle to stay alive and deliver a new kind of journalism. Some, too, will identify with its anticorporate ideology. But the real takeaway for our times is PM’s attempt, however flawed, to produce a publication that serves the interests of people who are closer to the bottom than the top in terms of power and influence, the proverbial little guy. That attempt is what made PM great, and worth remembering at a time when the distance between the top and the bottom is as great as it’s ever been.
Marshall Field III was an unlikely backer for an experimental left-wing publication. Born in Chicago, he was a grandson of the original Marshall Field, who had made a fortune with his eponymous department store. In the winter of 1905/06, his father committed suicide and his grandfather died, leaving the boy half of a $75 million estate. After serving in the First Illinois Cavalry during World War I (he was, after all, an accomplished polo player), Field plunged into a life of lavish estates, posh yachts, and quail hunts. When the Depression hit, Field experienced some kind of awakening. Divorced from his second wife, he began psychoanalysis in 1934 and emerged a more mature person with a newfound social conscience. Field became, at mid-life, a liberal. He dissolved his Wall Street investment company and set up the Field Foundation to start giving away his money.
Shortly before that time, he had met Ralph Ingersoll. A graduate of Hotchkiss and Yale, Ingersoll had already been working for more than a decade near the top of the publishing world in Manhattan. He had joined The New Yorker in 1925 as one of Harold Ross’s first hires, and served as Ross’s right-hand man, doing all sorts of editorial chores, including trying to flim-flam writers by stalling on their payments. The New Yorker founder was exasperated in 1930 when Ingersoll defected to the camp of Ross’s great enemy, the Time Inc. president Henry Luce, who made Ingersoll a top editor at Fortune.
During the Great Depression, Ingersoll underwent a personal conversion similar to Field’s; both men even saw the same psychoanalyst, Dr. Gregory Zilboorg. At Fortune, Ingersoll also came under the political tutelage of poet and leftist Archibald MacLeish, who extolled the virtues of the labor movement, socialism, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.