PM: an anniversary assessment

Why a left-leaning New York tabloid failed

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.

Trial issue of PM, printed in April 1939:

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.

Dress rehearsal: preview edition June 14, 1940:

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.

The first issue was published June 19, 1940, four days after the Nazis marched into Paris. The paper contained thirty-two tabloid pages, with about half the space filled with pictures. It used United Press, but rewrote the copy. Absent from the paper were such circulation builders as comics, late horse races, stock-market reports, and advice to the lovelorn.

First issue appeared on June 19, 1940:

At the beginning, PM’s crusades were aimed mainly at protecting consumers. The newspaper carried sixty-seven such stories during its first six months. Its first crusade was against “watered meat.” PM staff members bought meat at markets and took it to a laboratory, where it was found that half of it had more than the legal limit of brine preservative.

Other crusades were directed at the sale of sick poultry, at a secret amendment to the sanitary code that permitted a cheap new air-milk blend to be placed on the market, at installment sales practices, and at used car and sales rackets. PM also wrote about political pressures by private employers (it named them) on employees, of “dollar-a-year” men in Washington who looked out for their companies’ interests, and of a link between a foreign news service operating in the United States and the German government.

Ingersoll considered objective reporting an unattainable end, and PM’s stories often reflected this belief. It’s headlines, too, left little room for doubt:

6 Weasel Words Halt Tax Action

Health Department Has Power to Act But Watered Meat Fraud Continues

Here’s What Zoning Fuss Is All About: Landowners Fight for Old Privileges

Nation’s Big-Industry Concentrations Sped By Huge Profits on Defense Contract Awards

This approach to the news, together with PM’s policy of being “against people who push other people around” led to many stories about evictions, about labor, and about racial and religious bias.

Marshall Field gave PM’s justification for this kind of coverage:

One might say that PM has not fought with equal militancy for the rights and interests of the big corporations and the conservative groups in America. I suspect that that would be an accurate statement… the answer is that PM has not considered its function to be that of viewing with equal impartiality both sides of the struggle between the strong and the weak, the big and small, the monopolists and the independents, the intrenched and those who still have their way to make.

PM’s staff was both its greatest asset and its greatest liability. When it started hiring, the newspaper had plenty of people to choose from. Business Week reported that more than 11,000 experienced newspaper workers had applied for jobs, and that PM gave employment to 151, most of whom left other papers at no increase in salary.

Ingersoll confessed in a prospectus sent to subscribers on PM’s sixth birthday that he had failed to screen properly the job applicants and as a consequence let in a number of incompetents, Communists, and others who contributed to poor reporting and dissension among staff members.

Hodding Carter of Mississippi, who was press editor of PM, later wrote in Public Opinion Quarterly that PM was pushed around roughly from the start. He said the opposition included the New York newspapers, “such conservative trade journals as Editor & Publisher,” and skeptical publishers throughout the country. He said much of the opposition was a result of PM’s attitude toward advertising. PM’s favorable advance publicity, he wrote, “was matched by a counter-blast of printed criticism ranging from the humorous raillery of the New Yorker to a concerted smear campaign in which the liberal and left-wing tendencies of part of PM’s staff became an object of Red-baiting attack.”

The charges of Communist leanings made against PM perhaps would have been made by right-wing elements against any liberal newspaper. But they were particularly damaging to PM because, the analysts agree, there were a number of Communists on the staff.

PM set out to be the champion of the little man. Whether or not it expected its circulation to be among little men is not clear. Shortly before PM began, Richard Rovere wrote that it was assumed that readers would be drawn from the most intelligent of the three million tabloid readers. Whoever it was aiming at, PM didn’t reach enough of them. PM needed to sell 225,000 copies daily but much of the time it had only a little better than half that many. In the beginning, some of its competitors tried to keep PM off the newsstands, but this stopped when it became apparent that PM was not a formidable competitor.

The $1,500,000 that Ingersoll had figured would carry PM until it was on a paying basis was soon used up. About half a million of it went for promotion and for special equipment. There was a question of whether PM would be able to continue until in October, 1940, Marshall Field bought out the other owners.

PM continued to operate at a deficit. In 1941, its circulation dropped to 89,500, but climbed back to 150,000 in 1942. For the next three years, PM listed its circulation as 143,000. In the meantime, Ingersoll had gone into military service after an editorial fight against his draft board, whose members he thought were prejudiced against PM. The size of PM’s page was reduced, the number of pages cut from thirty-two to twenty-four, and some of the more expensive processes, such as color printing, dropped. The paper also changed its slogan from “PM Carries No Advertising” to “PM Tells You More News in Less Time.”

In 1945, PM finished with a profit for the first and only time. It was attained with the help of a seventeen-day strike of deliverers for the other newspapers. PM, which had already signed with the union, sold almost 300,000 additional copies a day during the period. At the end of the year it had made $40,000, which was split with the employees. Ingersoll came back from the war and resumed editorship of the paper. On PM’s sixth birthday, with circulation just under 165,000, it was losing about $5,000 a week.

PM started taking ads and Ingersoll resigned. He stated that although he was not against advertising, “there should be at least one mass newspaper in this country supported solely by its readers.”

PM was sold in April 1948, to Bartley C. Crum, a California lawyer, and Joseph Barnes, foreign editor of the New York Herald Tribune. The price was not disclosed, but Field had been reported willing to get out for $300,000. It was estimated that he had spent more than $3,000,000 on the paper in the nearly eight years of its existence. The name of the paper was changed to the New York Star, but its troubles remained the same as those of the old PM. The paper suspended publication early in 1949.

Last issue before PM became Star:

Robert Lasch wrote that although many newspapermen had become disillusioned with PMPM its death left them with a feeling of loss because:

this was a newspaperman’s newspaper, in the sense that though it was necessarily owned by big money it was wholly controlled by the editors. Seldom had American journalism come so close to the idea of an endowed newspaper. Seldom had anybody had such a chance to publish a newspaper without interference from an ownership primarily interested in profits.

Why did PM fail? The main reasons offered by the writers who have attempted to analyze the newspaper in the years since its demise are listed below.

1. PM was not a complete newspaper on which the reader could rely for a full supply of news and entertainment.
2. It came into a highly competitive newspaper situation, at a relatively high price (five cents).
3. PM reached the newsstands later than its competitors, and with older news.
4. There were too many amateurs on the paper.
5. The Communists on the staff seriously disrupted the paper’s efforts. The accusations made against PM on this issue were also seriously damaging.
6. PM did not deliver the kind of newspaper it had promised. It started out with a backlog of good ideas, but its performance was erratic.

Although it is likely that most of the reasons listed above contributed to PM’s passing, probably the main reason for its failure is contained in the first—that it was not a complete newspaper. It was thought of more as a specialty product, which added something others did not have, but which lacked many of the elements the readers had become accustomed to seeing in a newspaper. To get these features, it was necessary to buy another newspaper.

The criticism that PM was not complete strikes at the heart of what the paper tried to do. If this is the reason it did not succeed, one must go farther than the writers who have said PM failed because it didn’t deliver on its promises. The editors of PM probably felt that they were delivering. They intended to eliminate much of what is called “news” in other papers. They tried to cut away what they considered excess and to leave the reader with what was important, with an explanation of why and how it was important. From the editors’ point of view, PM was a complete newspaper.

Among the things PM lacked that audiences have come to expect in a newspaper were advertising—not simply a digest—and many of the elements classified by Wilbur Schramm as “immediate reward” items, such as entertainment features, comics, and certain kinds of news, among them human interest items. PM, however, tried to offer a heavy fare of “delayed reward” items; public affairs news and other items generally appealing to a well-educated—and therefore limited—audience. Conventional mass circulation papers contain both, but have a greater proportion of immediate reward items. By the time PM changed its formula to the extent of taking advertising and adding comics and other features it was too late.

The story of PM indicates that there was not a mass public—however much we may regret it—for the kind of newspaper envisioned by its founders.

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Lewis Donohew was a professor of communications and journalism at the University of Kentucky for nearly 35 years.