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Friday, April 12, 2024

Peak Newsletter? That Was 80 Years Ago

By the time Claud Cockburn resigned from his post as foreign correspondent for The Times of London, he’d grown sick of the newspaper’s conservative streak. But even as a freelancer, he continued to struggle with what he saw as the media’s complacency toward the rise of ultra-nationalist movements around the world. So he tried a new approach: He’d start a newsletter, and make himself a brand.

Cockburn’s first issue went out to subscribers in March 1933.


Produced from his one-room London office on a mimeograph machine, The Week would be unafraid to attack extremists such as Mussolini. His subscriber list started at just seven, but it soon grew to include even Charlie Chaplin and King Edward VII, among many others. In one of Cockburn’s biggest scoops, in June 1936, The Week broke the story that “a Fascist putsch by the higher ranks of the army officers” was underway in Spain. A month later, as predicted, a coup set the stage for the fascist leader Francisco Franco to come to power.

Cockburn was among a crop of journalists during the mid-20th century who turned their back on traditional media and used the mimeograph to go directly to their readers. If that sounds familiar, it's because we’ve lately seen the rise of staff-journalists-turned-newsletter-writers, such as Emily Atkin (formerly of The New Republic, now Heated), Judd Legum (formerly of ThinkProgress, now Popular Information), and, most recently, Casey Newton (formerly of the Verge, now Platformer). These writers have leveraged paid subscriptions on personal platforms to report and write full-time for a private audience. Many publications are hailing our arrival at this moment of Peak Newsletter. But they’re forgetting Cockburn and his colleagues.

In the 1930s, as today, the shift to newsletters arose amidst a crisis of confidence in the newspaper industry and was enabled by the spread of new technology. Though the first mimeograph had been licensed at the end of the 19th century, a mass-produced version of the machine ballooned in popularity around World War II. Now, regular people could become their own publishers for a one-time cost of just $50 to $100—equivalent to about $500 to $1,000 in today’s dollars. Radical poets like Allen Ginsburg used mimeographs to sell chapbooks, while genre aficionados relied on them to print science-fiction fanzines. Mimeographs also fueled the growth of marginalized communities: Some of the earliest gay publications, like the 1950s lesbian newsletter The Ladder, ran on the machine.

But there was another reason that media newsletters started to take off around the 1940s. At the time, public trust in mainstream media was wavering. Newspapers were making good money, but they were also increasingly turning into a monopoly. From 1923 to 1943, the number of US towns with at least two daily papers dropped from 502 to 137, according to media historian Victor Pickard’s book America’s Battle for Media Democracy. Congress threatened to investigate.

At the time, the popular perception was that newspapers were a bastion of conservative, not liberal, politics, driven by the interests of big business. By the end of the 1930s, many papers were fiercely opposed to the New Deal and to labor organizing, stances that would alienate large numbers of readers. As Pickard shows, the growing market consolidation, paired with these ideological concerns, led thousands of Americans in the 1940s to pack panels with titles like “Is the American Press Really Free?”

It also pushed some of the nation’s leading journalists to publish independently. In 1940 an entrepreneurial Chicago Tribune journalist named George Seldes quit his job to launch a newsletter. Newspapers, Seldes said, were “on the side of the free enterprise profits at public expense.” Like Claud Cockburn before him, Seldes wanted to print the stories that he felt the mainstream press had ignored. He called his publication In Fact, and labeled it “an Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press.”

In Fact was a 4-page news sheet written almost entirely by Seldes, and it sold for two cents. Seldes attacked newspapers that took ad money from tobacco companies and failed to report on the health risks of cigarettes. He went after strike-breakers. He reported on the FBI’s surveillance of unions (and drew FBI attention of his own). At its peak, 176,000 people were reading In Fact—including Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and “approximately 20 senators,” according to The Washington Post.

In some ways, Seldes brought Cockburn’s newsletter model to the American mainstream. “The tendency of reporters to leave their job and strike out on their own to report, I think Seldes is a really important figure in that,” said A. J. Bauer, a media professor at NYU.

In Fact certainly influenced Seldes’ friend, the leftist journalist I. F. Stone. Stone had left a job at the New York Post in 1939, and joined the staff of The Nation the next year. He bounced between jobs throughout the 1940s, including short stints at left-leaning papers like PM and The New York Star. Both publications quickly folded. Left-wing media was struggling, but Stone insisted to a friend he was “going to keep on fighting if I have to crank out a paper on a mimeograph machine in the cellar.” Which, by 1953, is what he did. I.F. Stone’s Weekly would be published for 20 years, earning 70,000 subscribers and a spot on NYU’s top works of journalism of the 20th century.

Neither Stone nor Seldes built audiences entirely on their own. Left-wing newsstands and bookstores carried their newsletters, says Bauer, and unions bought subscriptions for their members. Seldes was particularly reliant on the labor movement, and he paid the price when the Red Scare frightened unions out of associating with him. He ceased publication of In Fact in 1950, after its subscriber count had plummeted to just 40,000.

Still, the mid-century newsletter boom was not limited to the Left. Joseph P. Kamp, a conservative writer whom a US senator once described as a “veteran pamphleteer of extreme right-wing causes,” bootstrapped a newsletter called Headlines, and What's Behind Them in 1938. A typical article from 1948 detailed the investigation into what Kamp described as a Communist infiltration of the YMCA. Headlines saw an ideological successor in the conspiratorial Counterattack, launched by a trio of former FBI agents with a mimeograph machine in 1947. Another ex-FBI agent, Dan Smoot, started publishing the Dan Smoot Report in 1957.


So what happened to newsletters between then and now? They never really died. In the 1970s, conservative activists like Ayn Rand and Phyllis Schlafly each had their own—and press reports suggested in 1979 that newsletters were “booming” in Washington, DC.

But the swashbuckling early days of Cockburn and Seldes were over: Newsletters had gone corporate. Trade associations cranked them out, as did big publishers like McGraw Hill. Staff journalists at newspapers and magazines also started newsletters about specialty topics, like energy policy, for their parent companies. Going it alone was hard. About one-third of independent newsletters failed every year.

The distribution system that had given rise to In Fact—a network of unions, bookstores, and niche newsstands—had faded by this time. The 1970s wave relied on direct mailings, a tough market to crack without resources; and there was much less room for working journalists to go into solo publishing.

These days, companies like Substack are offering a new way out. For now, the platforms let readers find and discover new publications with ease, and they make starting up a newsletter even cheaper than renting a mimeograph ever was. But the context has shifted, too. The journalism crisis of the 1940s was ideological, not financial: When Seldes left the Tribune, the industry was booming and he could easily have found another job, says Bauer. He chose to leave anyway, because he wanted to report the news in his own way. In 2020, with the business of journalism in free fall, Substack’s allure has as much to do with generating steady income as finding editorial freedom.

There’s still plenty of reason to be wary of the current trend. Take the blog boom, which is in some ways the most recent precedent for what we’ve seen with newsletters. The early-00s blogging moment fell apart, and many outlets were bought up by companies like Gawker Media. One can imagine that phenomenon repeating itself. What happens, for instance, if a corporation comes along looking for talented Substack writers, then buys up the rights to their newsletters, or poaches them for other projects? Newsletters were corporatized once before, and they could be once again.

As Bauer puts it, “It’s this constant cat-and-mouse game between independent journalists trying to eke out a living and venture capital stalking them.”

Photographs: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images; Universal History Archive/Getty Images; Ron Burton/Getty Images

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