PM was a liberal tabloid published in New York from 1939 to 1948. As Lewis Donohew explained in CJR’s Summer 1965 issue, it forswore advertising, tried “to be the champion of the little man,” and only made money in one year of its short life. (The profits were shared with the staff.) Still, the paper’s roster included some serious journalists—I.F. Stone first among them—and it holds a hallowed perch in the history of newspapering and of America’s left. CJR’s January/February 2012 issue will feature a fresh look at the life and legacy of PM. The below paragraph originally ran above the piece.
A notable experiment in newspaper-making began twenty-five years ago this summer, only to founder eight years later. Here a young scholar—an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky—analyzes why PM failed.
An old saw holds that newspapers with advertising can’t be honest and newspapers without advertising can’t exist. Whatever the merit of that first axiom, a recurring dream in American journalism has been of the second—an adless newspaper, uninhibited by businessmen, including the owner.
Twenty-five years ago this summer the most ambitious of the adless experiments was founded in New York. PM was an afternoon tabloid that tried for six years to live without advertising and to develop new definitions and forms for news.
The founder of PM was Ralph Ingersoll, who resigned as publisher of Time to establish a newspaper that would be “against fraud and deceit and greed and cruelty” and would expose their practitioners; one whose editors did not believe all of mankind’s problems were being solved by the existing social order of any country; and one that proposed “to crusade for those who seek constructively to improve the way men live together.”
One of the original financial backers of PM, and later its only stockholder, was Marshall Field III. In describing PM’s approach to the news, he wrote:
it does not consider its job done when it has retailed press-service dispatches, when it has taken the “facts” as they come in and dished them out at random. What is known as “news” today is usually only a fleeting fragment of a larger whole. It is usually a surface projection of a cluster of difficult issues whose substance and reality are, like an iceberg, nine-tenths hidden below the surface.
Thus PM comes to its conception of news with the conviction that the world of economics, politics, and international affairs has become at once so dangerous and so complex that the ordinary man cannot find his way around in it without warnings and aids. Hence PM’s emphasis on “debunking” current “news stories”—“debunking” being journalese for the scalpel dissection of the interested motives which certain power groups may have in propagandizing a given version of the news.
This was the “new kind of news” PM sought to offer. There were, however, many opinions on what it delivered.
The idea for PM had occurred to Ingersoll in 1923 when New York newspapers put out a combined eight-page morning paper without advertising during a strike. Twelve years later, he set up Publications Research, Inc., which started planning for what was to become PM.
By 1939, he was ready to put out trial issues. He had sold, after some tribulations, $1,500,000 worth of stock to a group whose names, Time reported, read “like a list of Dun & Bradstreet’s AA ratings.” (One of the stockholders was the present chief of the New York Herald Tribune, John Hay Whitney.) Ingersoll received a five-year contract as editor that gave him exclusive power to formulate editorial, advertising, circulation, production, and promotion policies. Stockholders were told that the newspaper would be out of the red in the eighth month. The circulation required to break even was estimated at 225,000.
The home of the enterprise was on Dean Street in Brooklyn, up two flights of unplastered stairways on the top floor of a concern that was to do the engraving, typesetting, and stereotyping. The paper acquired the name PM from a journal for art directors and production managers.
PM promised to be a new kind of newspaper. A New York Times reporter wrote:
It will depart radically from the present-day newspaper and will be styled on the news magazine, with news departmentalized, much of it brief, and with more interpretation and background than is customarily given in the daily newspaper. Politically, it will be independent. In the early stages, no advertising will be solicited as such, but it will be handled as news as a service to the readers.