The newsletter business today--I.F. "Izzy" stone looks down.
In the late '70s and '80s, Howard Ruff's Ruff Times was probably the hottest newsletter around. Robert Parker has become a household word in the wine business. And other newsletter publishers have achieved some public notice. In the investment advisory field, there have been several "flavors of the month"--Louis Rukeyser and others. And Joe Granville's predictions moved the market before he began predicting earthquakes.
Nevertheless, I think any that one of the most famous newsletter publishers of all time is still I.F. "Izzy" Stone, publisher of I.F. Stone's Weekly, which ran from the 1950s to 1971.
A new biography of Stone, All Governments Lie, The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone, by Myra MacPherson. has just appeared ($23.10 on Amazon.com). This is no less than the fourth about him (which brings the all time total of biographies of newsletter editors to four, as far as I know).
What would Izzy do?
On this occasion I couldn't help wondering what Izzy would make of the newsletter business if he could see it today.
I expect he'd be flat-assed astonished by the increasing "corporatization" of the business. Take the current acquisition of AHC by Thompson Publishing Group from International Thomson (I'm confused too, even before I learned that just last month Avista Capital Partners has acquired an interest in TPG from CFSB Merchant Banking--see article above). We now have venture capitalists and investment bankers involved in the newsletter industry, something Izzy never envisioned.
Rolls out with 5,300 subs almost immediately
Stone launched his newsletter in the early '50s on the proverbial shoestring. He had $3,500 severance from his last newspaper job and some additional dough from investors, probably close to $10,000, which, adjusted to 2006 money, is still more than enough for a modest launch.
He also had great lists--liberal papers he'd worked for and buyers of his Hidden History of the Korean War. That hasn't changed. One list pulled 7.5 percent and he got 5,300 subs almost immediately, including Bertrand Russell, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein.
There's an urban legend I can't confirm that one year Marilyn Monroe bought subscriptions for every member of the U.S. Congress.
His $5 price translates to maybe $40 today. That might be sufficient for a monthly, but as the title indicates, his was a weekly.
His own name, his own style
Larry Ragan once said that, if you want to build a newsletter empire, it isn't a good idea to name the first one after yourself and write it in your own inimitable style. Izzy wrote in his own style and I suspect the ideas of spin-off titles, audio conferences, webinars or other ancillary products never entered his mind.
Successful publishers today tend to have large staffs. Izzy's wife of 60 years (another anomaly?) was his "staff" for much of his newsletter career.
There are still publishers of that ilk. Rob Steuteville, publisher of New Urban News, told NL/NL he can't imagine publishing on any other subject. Lew King can describe the editorial of his White House Weekly as "witty and funny because I write it all myself."
Far too many of today's titles, I suspect Stone would think, are edited by recent J-school grads who took over nine months ago (and plan to be gone nine months from now).
The peak of Stone's popularity came in the '60s when he was an early opponent of the Vietnam war. Speaking of writing in your own voice, in his newsletter he declared, "The mob-like chorus of the respectable would not silence the still, small voice of conscience which opposed this cruel ... barbarous, immoral and illegal war." I don't see newsletters writing in that voice today--well, perhaps Jim Hightower's The Hightower Lowdown and a couple of others.
Ill health forces sale but not retirement
With circulation at a peak of 73,000, ill health forced Stone to close (not sell) the newsletter in 1971. Today's successful publishers may hope to sell for big bucks and retire to someplace warm. Izzy never retired. In his 80s he learned ancient Greek and wrote a best-seller about Socrates.
Raises $20,000 for dissident as newsletter conference keynoter
As keynote speaker at the 1988 newsletter conference, he challenged the delegates to join him in supporting dissident publishers then emerging in the faltering Soviet Union.
Nearly $20,000 was raised, including Stone's donated honorarium. While attending the World Figure Skating Championships in Paris in March 1989, I helped purchase a final installment of printing equipment to be delivered to a third-floor walk-up office in an obscure arrondissement. Actually the office looked a lot like Capital Publications, circa 1965, in a third-floor walk-up over a D.C. bar.
Stone made a good deal of his reputation from dogged research and his relentless reading and pursuit of nuggets he found buried in the fine print of Federal Register notices and obscure Congressional committee reports.
What a goldmine the internet would have meant to him. Speaking of which, I Googled I.F. Stone and got 217,970 hits. The mind boggles.
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|Publication:||The Newsletter on Newsletters|
|Date:||Sep 18, 2006|
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