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.
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.