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The Bitter Race to Publish America's First Magazine

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Benjamin Franklin is known for being one of history’s most famous polymaths. But despite being a famed statesman and inventor—plus establishing the nation’s first volunteer fire company and subscription library—at heart Franklin considered himself a printer. (As a young man, he even composed an epitaph comparing the "Body of B. Franklin, Printer" to "the Cover of an Old Book" and promising that he would one day "appear once more/In a new & more perfect Edition.") In the 1740s, it was his ambition as a printer that ended up embroiling him in a rivalry with a local competitor to launch America’s first magazine.

Franklin's father, Josiah, originally wanted his bookish son to enter into the clergy, but he couldn't pay for the requisite education. Instead, Franklin ended up apprenticing with his brother James, a printer, in their home city of Boston. Franklin followed in his sibling's footsteps and later became a successful printer in his own right, co-founding a printing shop in Philadelphia in 1728.

Some of the most notable products of Franklin's shop included his newspaper the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack, which Franklin started publishing in 1732. But by 1740, Franklin had set his sights on another goal: producing the very first monthly magazine in the Thirteen Colonies.

At the time, England had its own monthly news magazine, called The Gentleman’s Magazine. Founded in 1731, it offered readers a curated mix of news, commentary, and literature; today, it’s remembered as the first publication to use the word magazine (derived from the Arabic makazin, or "storehouse") to describe a collection of printed material.

Franklin planned to loosely model his own magazine after The Gentleman’s Magazine. It would be published monthly and would offer an aggregation of stories from colonial newspapers. The printer also had a prospective editor in mind: an attorney and writer named John Webbe, who had published a series of essays on government in the Pennsylvania Gazette several years prior.

Franklin outlined his new business scheme to Webbe, hoping to bring him on board. The plan was to create a 57-page magazine, with an initial print run of 1000 copies. It would cost customers 15 shillings a year, or 15 pence per issue. Franklin would foot the production bills, and Webbe would be responsible for its contents, as well as writing promotions and abstracts. And since Franklin served as Philadelphia's postmaster, he would be in charge of distributing the magazine throughout the colonies. Since Franklin was paying to make the magazine, he proposed receiving 75 percent of proceeds, while Webbe would receive 25. Franklin would also receive three-fourths of the magazine’s royalties for the first 2000 copies; if more copies sold, he and Webbe would split them.

Initially, Webbe accepted Franklin’s offer. But after some consideration, he decided he wanted more money than Franklin was willing to give. So he went behind Franklin's back and pitched the idea to another printer named Andrew Bradford, proposing a larger share of the profits than Franklin had been offering.

Bradford was Webbe's friend—and Franklin's rival. He published Pennsylvania's first newspaper, the American Weekly Mercury, and once served as Philadelphia's postmaster; long before, he had also briefly employed Franklin at his print shop. But in later years, the ambitious Franklin launched a competing printing press and newspaper and replaced Bradford as Philadelphia's postmaster. Since then, their relationship had soured.

Bradford had reportedly also considered the idea of founding a magazine, so he jumped at the chance to beat Franklin—with Webbe as his editorial right hand. On October 30, 1740, Bradford printed a prospectus in the Mercury for a new publication called the American Magazine, or a Monthly View of the Political State of the British Colonies. Bradford promised readers that the publication would include an ambitious mix of political, legal, business, economic, and foreign news, as well as commentary and analysis. Their magazine would also be longer—and cheaper—than Franklin's. It was to be published for March (which meant it would appear in April, since 18th century magazines were always printed the month following their cover dates).

Not one to back down from a challenge, Franklin retaliated with his own magazine advertisement, published in the Pennsylvania Gazette about two weeks later. His publication, he announced, would be called The General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, For all the British Plantations in America. In addition to hard news, The General Magazine would include excerpts from new books; opinion essays and poetry; and news of births, marriages, deaths, and promotions. Franklin also lowered his planned price from 15 pence to nine pence, made the magazine longer, and decided to fund it entirely himself (rather than relying on subscriptions) to get it out faster.

The magazine would be ready for January, Franklin promised (which meant it would appear in February). The advertisement also noted that the magazine "would not, indeed, have been published quite so soon, were it not that a Person, to whom the Scheme was communicated in Confidence, has thought to advertise it in the last Mercury, without our Participation; and, probably, with a view, by Starting before us, to discourage us from prosecuting our first Design, and reap the Advantage of it wholly to himself." (On "a Person," Franklin included the footnote "John Webbe.")

Webbe responded with a series of newspaper articles in the Mercury attacking Franklin, accusing him of "the most mischievous Kind of Lying" and of having "the Slyness of a Pickpocket." According to Webbe, the project was never supposed to be secret and he hadn’t really committed himself to it, anyway. Franklin did not immediately reply, merely reprinting his advertisement, but some scholars think one of the proverbs printed around this time in Poor Richard’s Almanack may have been related to the betrayal: "If you would keep your Secret from an enemy, tell it not to a friend."

Meanwhile, two magazine deadlines loomed. Bradford wanted to scoop Franklin, so he moved up the American Magazine’s publication date. Both magazines ended up running in February 1741, but Bradford’s publication ultimately got there first: The American Magazine was published on February 13, 1741, three days before Franklin's.

The intense rivalry among Franklin, Bradford, and Webbe had started with a bang, but ended with a whimper: Bradford’s American Magazine folded after three issues, and Franklin’s General Magazine lasted only six issues. But while Bradford and Webbe may have gotten there first, their names are now just footnotes in history—while Franklin's brilliant reputation, as a printer and far more, lives on.

Additional Source: The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 2: Printer and Publisher, 1730-1747, J.A. Leo Lemay

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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