Media without Advertising? Reinterpreting the History of the Advertising-Based Business Model in the Modern United States: Two Cases from the 1940s

Shannan Clark

            Although advertising has long been the lifeblood of the mass media, the emergence of new Internet-based digital media forms over the last several decades has undermined the advertising-based business model that sustained most media enterprises in the United States since the late-nineteenth century.  As advertising revenues for most contemporary media enterprises have diminished relative to the past earnings of legacy media, and more firms look to subscriptions and user fees for their sustenance, it is worth reconsidering earlier experiments to establish advertising-free media within America’s culture of consumer capitalism. 

            This presentation will examine two innovative print media enterprises founded in 1940 –the New York daily tabloid newspaper PM and the weekly news dispatch In Fact– that broke with the prevailing reliance on advertising.  In an era when most periodicals depended on advertising for two-thirds of their revenue, both PM and In Fact eschewed advertising as a corrupting influence, and sought to subsist entirely on what readers were willing to pay for content.  Largely because of operating issues specific to the early postwar period, PM ceased publication in 1948 and In Fact folded two years later.  Nonetheless, these case studies demonstrate the alternatives that existed to the advertising-based model for American media during the mid-twentieth century, and they offer a useable past for today’s disruptive media entrepreneurs.