Through the mid-1930s, Ingersoll grew unhappy with running magazines for Luce, with whose right-wing ideas he increasingly disagreed. In 1937, Ingersoll took a month off and went to his country house in Lakeville, Connecticut, where he came up with the initial prospectus for what would become PM. Meanwhile, he continued to bounce around the Luce empire, and while working at Time he started trying to line up editorial talent for his secret project. It wasn’t hard. In an era when most newspapers and magazines were slashing their staffs, there was no shortage of writers and editors looking for work. Some ten thousand applicants poured in for fewer than 200 jobs.
Securing investors proved more difficult. Ingersoll, who was good at running publications, reckoned he would need about $5 million to launch PM. Eventually, he decided to launch with about $1.5 million, which he raised in fifteen shares of $100,000 each. Field bought two shares.
As editor, Ingersoll wanted others to know where his paper would stand. A phrase from his prospectus, boiled down a bit, became PM’s motto: “We are against people who push other people around.” With that call to arms, Ingersoll attempted to reinvent the daily newspaper. For one thing, PM would be beautiful. It was printed in a single-fold, stapled tabloid format. Stories would not jump from page to page, and color ink would break up the traditional gray columns of type. As in Time, stories would be organized into departments. Ingersoll insisted on high-quality paper and inks, because he wanted the photos to pop from the newsstand murk. In a snub to the Fortune set, there would be no stock tables.
PM would be editorially innovative, too. Reporters chose their own topics and wrote in their own styles. Articles were edited lightly, if at all, in part as a matter of principle and in part out of necessity—Ingersoll acknowledged that he never managed to hire enough staff.
His most radical step was to shun advertising. (This was unusual, but not entirely unprecedented. A few other papers had attempted to survive on circulation alone—notably a Chicago-based paper called Day Book, which had been founded before World War I by E. W. Scripps and lasted about six years.) The business model for the big-city daily paper was, and still is, based on the dual-revenue stream: income from both advertising and circulation. Despite many misgivings, all publishers had come to rely on ads, and most tried to ensure that their products were congenial environments for bringing together advertisers and consumers.
Ingersoll’s views on advertising traced back to his old boss at The New Yorker. Like Harold Ross, Ingersoll believed that advertising corrupted the English language and threatened the independence of journalists by giving them a financial master. In PM, Ingersoll proudly dispensed with seasonal features urging women to buy entire new wardrobes, and proudly attacked wartime contractors without worrying about retaliation from big advertisers like General Motors or Ford.
Instead, Ingersoll planned to charge the top rate for subscriptions and let his readers support the paper. At first, PM went through some wild swings in circulation. From an early high of about 400,000, the demand settled to about 150,000 copies a day—which would have been fine, except that Ingersoll had calculated that his break-even point was about 200,000. He called his goal of 250,000 readers “a substantial figure, but still no more than the weakest of the eight competing New York dailies.” Within months, the initial backers began to panic. Just in time, Field stepped in and bought out all the other investors for about twenty cents on the dollar, emerging as the sole owner for the bargain price of a little over half a million dollars.
With Field’s money and Ingersoll’s ideas, PM made quite a splash. Reporters like I.F. Stone wrote hard-hitting exposés, revealing, among other things, how US companies shipped oil to Hitler’s Germany through Franco’s Spain. The paper also reported that the Red Cross segregated blood donations by race, and it took on big business, isolationist Charles Lindbergh, and the Catholic Church. Cartoonists like Theodor Geisel (later known as Dr. Seuss) lampooned bullies, and Hodding Carter critiqued the press, while Max Lerner handled most of the editorials. Margaret Bourke-White and Weegee shot photos, and Heywood Broun, Ernest Hemingway, Ben Hecht, and Dorothy Parker all contributed articles.
One of PM’s trademarks was its extensive coverage of the labor movement. After making historic breakthroughs in the 1930s, the cio unions in steel, auto, coal, and other heavy industries became important to the war effort. PM’s labor desk got a full page to fill every day, and the paper covered union elections as if they were congressional races.