Five years ago The Progressive Populist embarked with perhaps an excess of optimism that tens of thousands of populists would clamor to read homegrown news of interest to workers, small businesses and family farmers and ranchers. Well, we have had to downscale our expectations a bit but at least we've managed to extract our modest subscription price from assorted populists of all stripes: progressives, liberals, conservatives, unionists, grangers, reformers, democrats, socialists, hippies, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, pagans, vegetarians, omnivores and even a few diehard communists and republicans -- just enough to cover the postage, satisfy the low remunerative demands of our writers and artists and keep the printer within a few months of being paid.
Five years is an epoch for an independent publication that lacks a TV network to promote its product and has no deep corporate pockets to afford lucrative distribution deals or buy display space in supermarket checkout lines. We've built our circulation the old-fashioned way, by maxing out our credit cards to send out a couple hundred thousand samples and getting a response from enough of them so that the circulation recently topped 4,200. That's up 50% from the 2,800 subscribers we had in November 1999. We feel good about that growth even though we had hoped to be above 5,000 circulation by now. We still hope to get there by the end of this year and help pay off those credit cards. By then (we half-expect) we will find out that the break-even point is more like 6,000 subscribers.
While our circulation is still modest, we think we have played a part in rescuing the good name of populism. When we started in November 1995, many in the pundit class wrote off populism as a right-wing phenomenon synonymous with nationalist demagoguery, with a taint of racism and anti-semitism. They overlooked the thread that runs from the agrarian Populist movement that challenged the Robber Baron plutocracy in the 1890s, through the Progressive movement and the New Deal, which put together the farmer-labor Democratic coalition and sought to use government to help working people and protect them from the excesses of the "free market."
Nowadays, when progressives who are trying to restore democracy in the face of the multinational corporate power grab are called populist, it has a little less of a pejorative ring to it. Even Al Gore had his populist days this summer -- remember when it looked like he was going to run away with the election? -- before the Democratic Leadership Council steered his campaign back into the mainstream corporate embrace.
We still think that people are more important than corporations and our journal is needed as a forum for progressive populists who are willing to challenge corporatists, plutocrats, mossbacks and the neo-Robber Barons who are beatified in the mainstream press.
We think we are more effective as a twice-monthly publication, although we lost a few subscribers who were overwhelmed when we expanded from our monthly production schedule in October 1999. Overall the response from readers to the expansion has been positive and our attrition rate (the percentage of readers who fail to renew) remained constant during the switch.
Some subscribers objected to our charging $29.95 for 22 issues, complaining that we were trying to pull a fast one in knocking off a nickel to make the subscription price look like more of a bargain. (Few of those critics offered to pay $30 instead, though.)
Of course we would be more effective if we did have tens of thousands of subscribers, and we still hope to get there some day. The process is painfully slow but you can help. First of all, tell your friends about The Progressive Populist. If you can, buy them gift subscriptions for Christmas. Or call us at 1-800-205-7067 and we'll send them a free sample. You can sign up your local library for a gift subscription, too. If you have a little extra cash, we could use it to help subsidize low-income readers who cannot afford our regular rate.
If nothing else, we hope you'll let us exchange your address with other progressive publications and non-profit organizations as we continue our search for new subscribers. When we exchange our list with other groups, mailers are authorized only to send out a solicitation or sample issue; we don't give out phone numbers and we don't rent names for other commercial uses. However, if you do not wish to have your address given out, you can call our circulation office at 1-800-732-4992 during business hours and ask to be "unlisted." We're glad to comply with your wishes.
We also occasionally lose readers because we run articles that upset them. I don't know how to get around that problem because we are in the business of upsetting biases and preconceived notions. Occasionally we even run articles making arguments that oppose our own beliefs, because that's what a free press does. Readers have written in to praise us for our coverage, only to turn around a few months later to cancel their subscription because we added a columnist they didn't like, or a columnist angered them on some hot-button issue, or we endorsed a candidate they disagreed with. We can't promise that you'll agree with us 100%, but we do hope you'll keep coming back to see if we ever do get it right.
JIM CULLEN, Editor