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.
But content wasn’t all hard news and big ideas. While foregoing spreads on the latest fashions, PM told its readers how to look good in clothes they already owned. Editors also summarized the contents of ads that department stores ran in other newspapers, so readers would not miss out on sales. And PM’s use of photos, graphics, color, and maps would not be equaled until the launch of USA Today in 1982.
The paper was unabashed about what it did and did not support. “PM’s own staff… embraced many shades of political opinion, all vehement,” wrote The New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs, but some articles of faith were absolute: the paper was consistently pro-FDR, pro-labor, pro-democracy. And from its earliest days, PM had one paramount enemy: Adolf Hitler. Ingersoll and most of his writers shared the view that Hitler was an unprecedented evil. From that premise, they reached two tragic conclusions. One was that any ally in the fight against Hitler was welcome. Carried to an extreme, this caused most PMers, and many others on the left, to minimize or even deny the brutality and mass killings carried out by America’s ally in Moscow, Joseph Stalin. (This pro-Soviet bent would come back to haunt many PM contributors during the 1950s.)
The other conclusion was that because Hitler was so dangerous, any tactic in opposing him was acceptable. Indeed, years before Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare, PM’s writers led a disturbingly similar witchhunt for supporters of Hitler, using many of the same deplorable tactics: the big accusation based on little evidence; guilt by association; the equation of dissent with treason; disregard for civil liberties; demands that suspects rat out friends and acquaintences. They were running a school for scoundrels.
Over the years, the financial losses at PM mounted, reaching $25,000 a day. For all Ingersoll’s planning, PM was never really on solid ground. It was undercapitalized (“Between the high resolve to create a new kind of newspaper and reality, there was a gap ten million dollars wide,” Ingersoll wrote later), and never managed to hire as many reporters, editors, and photographers as Ingersoll would have liked. It was also overpriced, so it never really caught on among the city’s blue-collar readers whose issues it trumpeted. Though PM could be for the working class, it would never really be of the working class.