Ten years ago in November The Progressive Populist published its first issue. Our journal from the Heartland was founded in Storm Lake, Iowa, in the fall of 1995, partly as a way to give a struggling family newspaper some printing business, but more importantly to restore the good name of populism and to set up a forum for people who believe that people are more important than corporations.
Your editor was a former daily newspaper reporter in Texas and Louisiana and associate editor of The Texas Observer in Austin. Brothers John and Art Cullen had founded The Storm Lake Times five years earlier in competition with a century-old newspaper that had been bled for years by a corporate chain in our hometown. After three years of printing their weekly elsewhere, John and Art decided to buy their own web press so they could end that 120-mile weekly roundtrip to the printer and feast on the revenue from their own "job printing" as a sideline to their newspaper.
They soon learned that it is even harder to collect on printing bills than it is for debts from advertisers. While locked in a local newspaper war with the deep-pockets-chain-owned competition, the Cullen brothers theorized that it would be better to grow another publication to supplement their income and also to discuss issues of interest to workers, small businesses and family farmers and ranchers.
Nearly all reporters think they could run a newspaper better than the idiots in the business office, but few get the chance -- and most of those idealists who do start a magazine end up broke within the first two years. Nearly half of new magazines don't celebrate their first anniversary, and only about one in 10 new titles is still publishing after 10 years.
Despite those long odds against success, the opportunity to set up a national publication was irresistible.
I started calling and writing potential writers and supporters. Some tried to talk me out of it; others humored me, but I detected lots of sighs when I initially told them of the plans for our journal.
Some wondered why we would name our paper The Progressive Populist. I replied that it described pretty well what we were up to. "Progressive populist" was how Jim Hightower described himself and we seemed to agree on most political and economic issues.
The term "populist" had become identified with the right wing in the late 20th century. But we remembered the progressive movement of farmers in the South and the Midwest that rebelled against the bankers, railroads and the beginnings of the corporate plutocracy in the late 1800s. The Populists were the precursors to the Progressives in the early 1900s, which led to the New Deal in the 1930s. Corporate plutocrats have worked ever since to undo the reforms of that era and blacken the memory of the progressive populists.
Some wiseguys have noted that we critics of corporations are also set up as a corporation (subchapter S). I don't see inconsistency. We don't object to all corporations but we do feel they should be accountable for their actions.
The first columnists we lined up were Hightower and Molly Ivins, both former Texas Observer editors who already wrote syndicated columns. I also signed up Hal Crowther and Charles Levendosky, both H.L. Mencken Award winners for commentary, as well as Eugene McCarthy, a longtime hero with a penchant for fighting causes against long odds. Other recruits were Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, media critics Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen and agribusiness critic Al V. Krebs.
In addition to those writers, the debut issue, dated November 1995, featured Carol Countryman, who contributed the first of several "Tales from East Texas"; Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of The Texas Observer, with a "Call to Hope and Action" that resulted in the formation of the Alliance for Democracy; Sen. Tom Harkin on "Why I Am a Progressive Populist"; Peter Montague on "Conservative Principles"; James M. Yeager on "Class, Race and Warfare in 1996"; Richard Rothstein on "Minimum Wage and Pocket Change"; Todd Basch on "Another Populist Moment"; Laura McClure on the AFL-CIO; and Dan Yurman on militias; plus articles by Art and Jim Cullen.
Sen. Harkin, an enthusiastic supporter, invited us to the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines, where we showed a copy of the premiere issue to then-President Bill Clinton, who exclaimed, "I like the title!"
We started sending out sample copies to subscribers of liberal publications and organizations. Response was good, but subscriptions came in painfully slowly.
By the second issue, dated January 1996, we had picked up Christopher Cook, who would become an occasional contributor. We added Roberto Rodriguez and Patrisia Gonzales, then operating as "Latino Spectrum," in March 1996; Joan Retsinas, Ted Rall and Joel Joseph in April; Sam Smith in May; and Joyce Marcel and Randolph Holhut in September 1996.
Our pages have been filled with the writing of lots of good people in the past decade. We've also lost a few friends. Charlie Wilson contributed folksy ruminations from Heavener, Okla., from July 1997 until his death on April 9, 1998. Donella Meadows of Hartland, Vt., contributed her "Global Citizen" column on environmental issues from November 1996 until her death on Feb. 20, 2001. Charles Levendosky, who as opinion page editor of the Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune had a national reputation as a defender of First Amendment and civil liberties, died March 14, 2004. Marty Jezer, our bureau chief in Brattleboro, Vt., contributed occasional columns from April 1999 until shortly before his death on June 11, 2005.
We edited the copy in Austin and zapped it over the Internet to Storm Lake to be printed. This summer we moved our editorial office to Manchaca, Texas.
We figured it would take two years to break even; in fact it was nearly seven years before I was able to pay myself a regular salary. During that time the publication was partially subsidized by my wife, Becky Garcia, who occasionally would inquire, "When are you going to start making money on that paper?" When we switched to twice-monthly publication in November 1999 we had about 3,000 subscribers. During the dot-com boom, we toddled along with our pioneering website at populist.com, but at least we outlived some of those now-forgotten digital comets. (By the way, Salon got its start at about the same time as the Populist; congrats go to them for surviving closer brushes with death than we ever ran -- and remaining independent.)
When Bill Clinton left office we were approaching 5,000 subscribers. By the end of George W. Bush's first term we had topped 10,000 subscribers. Like other progressive publications, we found the villainy of the Bush administration to be a boon to our circulation. We've lost a few subscribers since Bush's reelection, as some of our readers have burned out or opted to take a break from the bad news, but we think we've stanched those losses.
Our readers represent a broad cross-section of America. You span the political spectrum from socialists to Greens, Democrats, independents to Republicans and other conservatives who are interested in the truth, not just Big Business talking points. All are welcome.
We flirted last year with the idea of expanding to weekly publication. A survey indicated half our readers thought it was a good idea and the other half thought it was a terrible idea. Twice monthly we remain.
Now we're in that elite company -- the 10% of magazine survivors. We still think a populist voice is needed now more than ever. With your support we will continue to provide it. -- Jim Cullen, Editor