In which Economic Principals (Haltingly) Finds Its Way to (toward) a New Publisher

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The Web was something of a wilderness when EP made the leap in March 2002. Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan, and Ira Stoll were the only independent journalists I knew who had begun operating so-called online “blogs.” But after a standstill agreement expired, the New York Times Co. had taken control of The Boston Globe. The editor whom they installed had killed the column, and I wanted to keep writing.

EconomicPrincipals.com had three specific inspirations. Esther Dyson, from the office across the hall at Forbes, when I’d worked there, had bought Ben Rosen’s Electronic Newsletter and turned it into Release 1.0; Jim Campano, from around the corner in Davis Square, in Somerville, Mass., had founded The West Ender, a little newspaper for the 7,000 or so persons evicted from their neighborhood in 1958 by Boston city planners; and, in a more general way, I.F. Stone’s Weekly (my Aunt Betty, who lived across the street from my childhood home, would pass it on).

I borrowed a webmaster, Richard Harrington, from my young friend Stoll. My old friend Mark Feeney agreed to serve as copy editor (now counting 973 Saturdays in a row!). I depended on Dreamweaver’s cumbersome software until WordPress was invented. The newspaper world had only begun tumbling to the fact that Google and Facebook had found ways to make money from search advertising.  It took four years and an election for www.economicprincipals.com to settle on the public broadcasting/subscription model with which it has operated ever since, without the incessant fundraising.

Subscribers who paid $50 a year would receive the bulldog (early) edition via email at midnight Saturday, in time to read Sunday morning and suggest improvements, if they wished. I would post the weekly to the Web on Sunday evening for interested parties around the world to read for free. (“More than 100 countries” I would boast in those early days.) And though the bulldog list seldom topped 700 subscribers, fewer than half of them dependable annual payers, the system has worked well for fifteen years. EP’s world headquarters remained open in Somerville’s Ball Square, and I completed two books and began a third, that division of labor having always been part of the newspaper deal.

Someone was bound to invent a better system, and in 2017, Chris Best and Hamish McKenzie did. Substack has been in the news recently, in the NYTimes and The New Yorker, but in many ways, the best introduction to its ambitions is still the first. Next week EP is moving its fulfillment and distribution to Substack. Most readers will barely notice the change.  As before, if you read it online or receive it by feed, it will still appear around 5p EST on Sundays.

I mulled the change for more than a year. I will miss the intimacy of the band of sibs that has sustained EP to this point.  But in 2020, Substack become the standard of the independent journalism industry. Not to move would be to capitulate to deliberate obsolescence. There are plenty of wrinkles still to work out. But the beginning of 2021 seems the right time to make the change. (Headline updated June 2021 to reflect indecision, which is finally diminishing.)

From its beginning, in 1983, EP has been mainly concerned, as its online FAQs put it, with “the production and distribution of economic ideas,” mainly but not entirely by professional economists.  Its political interests emerged gradually, and their expression over the years has tended to follow the old newspaper rule-of-thumb, surfacing around once out of every four weeks – more frequently during what seemed the emergency of the Trump years. EP now looks forward to getting back to normal.

Like many of my friends, I am attending the online meetings of the Allied Social Science Association only lightly. Their highlight will come when Emmanuel Saez, of the University of California at Berkeley, delivers the AEA Distinguished Lecture, formerly known as the Richard T. Ely Lecture, and renamed this year.

The invitation to Saez was extended by labor economist David Card, also of Berkeley, this year’s AEA president-elect. A number of sessions are being streamed on You Tube. Saez speaks on “Inequality and Public Economics” a little after 6p EST Monday, January 4.