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Summer 1993
City Journal Summer 1993.
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  I deas and Observations

PM: New York's Highbrow Tabloid
Roger Starr
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Let’s face it. People who have to read a newspaper, or, at the very least, hold one while they drink their breakfast coffee, choose their journals for different reasons. They take the New York Times because they respect it. Its reporters and editors, who they feel are at least as smart as they, have looked at the previous day’s events and dared to inscribe their significance in black on white forever. Devotees of New York Newsday would miss the Brooklyn and Queens news if they were forced to read anything else. New York Post readers require either its ample sports coverage or Eric Breindel’s editorials as other people need orange juice, and readers of the Daily News are watching with bated judgment to see if the new regime carries on as the last one did.

Not one of these loyalties, however, approaches the dedication that was once lavished by readers on another New York newspaper, PM, an afternoon tabloid published between 1940 and 1948 by a magazine genius named Ralph Ingersoll. A unique effort to revise what people had come to expect from a newspaper, PM took a fresh approach from first to last.

Ingersoll had conceived the idea for PM while managing editor of Time-Life publications, where he had come up with the editorial formula that was responsible for Fortune magazine’s success. Approaching his fortieth birthday with the feeling that everything he was doing he had done before, Ingersoll began to ponder the functions of a daily newspaper in a world where radio (and eventually television) could deliver the facts faster. From these ruminations came PM.

Ingersoll, as he would explain to anyone who would listen, wanted to create a newspaper that would be free of all the clichés newspapers had embodied for several centuries. He would show that to be serious, a newspaper did not have to be solemn. Nor did it have to be an ungainly mass of large folded sheets of unbound paper that made reading it impossible while standing in a subway train and that separated family members when read at the breakfast table.

Instead of reporters who were simply trained to cast the main facts of a story in the first paragraph, Ingersoll wanted writers who could tell a story dramatically. And unlike the standard news story that aspired to a neutral tone, PM’s stories would make it clear where the writer’s sympathies lay. Moreover, Ingersoll would give space to writers with whom he did not agree, as long as they came to their position honorably. Lest a single reader feel that advertisers’ money was influencing PM’s choice of news coverage and tinting its editorial policies, the newspaper would carry no advertising.

Countless conferences preceded the paper’s final format. It was smaller and squarer than the News and Mirror tabloids already on the street, its 32 pages stapled together along the spine to make it easier to handle. PM relied more heavily on photographs than existing papers—its initials stood for “photographic material” as well as for its afternoon appearance on newsstands. And its new format, which separated the news into different departments, made it easy for readers to find the news they cared about.

The front page used color and featured only one story. The PM logo appeared in the top left hand corner; headlines of two or three relatively minor stories might appear beneath it, but the rest of the page—at least three-quarters of it—remained available for the big story. Sometimes the front page was given over to an editorial—though these did not appear in every issue, and no more than one appeared in any issue. Signed by Ralph Ingersoll and addressed to the reader, PM’s editorials made no attempt at achieving a judicious tone: “The Fascists Are Winning,” declared one of PM’s front pages. “What Are You Going to Do About It?”

The war in Europe was not a serious consideration in the plans for PM’s publication, but by the time the paper emerged, the war had become America’s crucial issue. Ingersoll had no hesitation in staking out PM’s position: “We are against people who push other people around,” he wrote in his first editorial. He went on to say that America was in peril unless British forces could defeat Germany, and was altogether doomed if it did not supply the nations fighting Germany and Italy. No other paper stated the case so unequivocally. During that same period, for instance, cartoons in the Daily News showed a sinister vamp, representing war, seducing young American men with the false promise of excitement and adventure.

Although every member of PM’s staff was profoundly anti-Hitler, the staff was divided into two cliques: the liberals who regarded the Soviet Union as a slave state, devoid of individual rights, and the liberals who regarded the Soviet Union as a living demonstration of a truly humane society. PM’s readers could usually distinguish the news written by either of the two sides.

The late 1930s and the early 1940s were the years when American labor was just beginning to win the right to unionize and bargain collectively, and PM devoted almost six pages every day to news of the American labor front. Leo Huberman, a communist sympathizer, was editor of the labor news, and for a year and a half the paper argued that American workers were entitled to more money and better terms without worrying over whether strikes would help the fascists. But after the German invasion of Russia in July 1941, the party and its sympathizers in the press put labor’s problems on the back shelf, and urged full production to give the Russians some relief.

To make up for the lack of advertising and give its readers information about sales on everything from coats and underwear to string beans and porterhouse steak (33 cents a pound in 1941), at least four pages of each issue were devoted to consumer items. It was generally acknowledged that PM had the best radio listings in New York—two pages in every weekday issue. The double issue on Sunday (PM did not publish on Saturday) was replete with photographs, many by Weegee, a remarkable candid photographer with great feeling for the city and especially its people. PM’s maps, illustrating military movements, were extremely good. Its sports section headlined two of the city’s best sports writers, Tom Meany and Tom O’Reilly. George F. T. Ryall covered horse racing. Louis Kronenberger, whom many considered the best critic in the city, covered the theater. Elizabeth Hawes, a fashion designer, wrote on fashion; her sister, Charlotte Adams, covered food.

Ingersoll tried very hard to put together a writing staff whose members had established reputations in the world of books. At one time or another articles appeared in PM by Erskine Caldwell; McGeorge Bundy, whose work appeared soon after his graduation from college; James Wechsler, who ultimately became the paper’s editorialist; Penn Kimball, later dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism; Heywood Hale Broun; James Thurber; Dorothy Parker; Ernest Hemingway; I. F. Stone; Eugene Lyons, a onetime communist who devoted himself to exposing communists; Ben Stolberg; and Malcolm Cowley, who wrote a serious attack on the lack of class consciousness in Kronenberger’s reviews. Ben Hecht wrote a more or less regular column that purported to be about New York, but was mainly about the colorful and interesting personalities he encountered.

PM’s weakest section was its New York City coverage. Ingersoll could not compete with newspapers like the Herald-Tribune and the Times that had much bigger staffs. PM had to rely mostly on United Press wire copy for its coverage of New York. As the foreign situation deteriorated, however, and the prospect of American participation in the war became clearer, local news became less important.

The second anniversary of PM’s publication was probably the high point of its existence. Congratulatory messages poured in from those who supported its policies and coverage of the war. The newspaper printed two pages of messages from President Roosevelt and other eminent people.

Unfortunately, Ingersoll also received a message from his draft board: despite his 41 years, he was being called up for service. Ingersoll strongly suspected that some of the people who did not like PM’s editorial positions were behind the draft board’s action. Nonetheless, finding himself in the awkward position of having urged other people to fight, he refused to ask for a deferment. He was drafted, and thus began a remarkable military career that formed the basis for several books he wrote after the war.

If publishing PM without Ralph Ingersoll was difficult, it was no harder than publishing it without enough money. PM’s original financial plan had been disastrously inadequate. Initially, Ingersoll had calculated that he would need $10 million to keep PM going until it developed a readership large enough to sustain it. (Unfortunately, that never happened; circulation hovered between 100,000 and 200,000 throughout the paper’s existence.) But the investment bankers to whom he brought his prospectus told him that no one would put $10 million in an untried publication that carried no advertisements.

Ingersoll reduced his capital requirement to $5 million, a concession that failed to impress the investment bankers. In fact, he had only managed to raise $1.5 million when he hired his first people and started looking for a printing plant and office space. The original investors included some of the outstanding figures in the small circle of wealthy Americans who supported liberal causes, and were sufficiently well-off to face with equanimity the prospect of losing sums of $10,000 to $200,000.

As early as September 1940, barely three months after the publication of the first issue, it was clear that the paper had used up the entire $1.5 million in capital it had received from investors, newsstand purchasers, and subscribers. To make matters worse, more than 100,000 subscription cards that had been mailed in as a result of a pre-publication campaign were lost in the tangle of PM’s office; whether through carelessness or malevolence, no one ever found out. To keep PM going past September 1940, management had to defer all payments to the paper’s worried and impatient creditors.

It was Marshall Field III, described at a younger age as “the world’s richest boy,” who stepped forward and volunteered to don the hair shirt of a guardian angel. For the next eight years, during most of which time the world was at war, Field continued to help PM survive, while hardly ever suggesting changes.

At that time, very rich Americans tended to favor solid institutions: colleges and universities, long-established organizations that tried to assist the poor and disabled, or cultural institutions, such as museums and orchestras. Field, however, was determined to use his money in ways that would broaden his own life as well as give aid to people who were not admitted to the American mainstream. He established a Citizens Committee for Children in New York and the Field Foundation for helping the poor, especially blacks. But even for Field, financing as a silent partner a newspaper that consistently lost money seemed a peculiar choice. It was probably the very peculiarity of such a choice, which distinguished him from his peers, that appealed to him.

When Ingersoll returned to New York after the war and had a chance to catch up on what his newspaper had been doing, he found himself extremely disappointed. The PM he read was not the PM he had imagined. It was not as lively and well-written as he had expected, and now that the war no longer provided a common enemy, the editorial split between the procommunist and anticommunist liberals was creating confusion.

Meanwhile, Marshall Field had come to the end of his patience and insisted that PM accept advertising. Ingersoll realized that the days of running the paper his way were over, and severed his connection with the newspaper. Field continued to carry PM for another two years, although he had become more interested in publishing the Chicago Sun. He eventually turned the paper over to two experienced journalists who changed the name to the Star. But even with advertising, the paper continued to lose money and lasted only nine more months. The rest is silence.

Though 45 years have passed since the end of the war, a dwindling band of PM’s faithful subscribers would surely be delighted to greet the start of a newspaper founded on Ralph Ingersoll’s initial resolutions: no advertising, a clear editorial policy forcefully expressed, hospitality toward an opposing point of view candidly revealed, columnists and occasional contributors noted for their knowledge and writing skill, great photographs, and staples to hold the newspaper together and make for easy reading on the subway or at the dining table.

 

 


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