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.

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Subscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.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.”