What the startup of TIME magazine (in 1923) can teach us about new product development

By Mary Lou Fulton

There’s a new biography out about media magnate Henry Luce that describes how he and Yale classmate Briton Hadden  dreamed up the idea for TIME magazine, a breakthrough concept in publishing launched way back in 1923.   I read a Vanity Fair excerpt of the book, The Publisher, by Alan Brinkley, and was fascinated by how Luce and Hadden were natural new product development people.  In conceptualizing TIME, they identified major trends that are entirely relevant today in the world in digital publishing and their approach offers these lessons for would-be media entrepreneurs:

  • Find an unmet need. Digital publishing can make people lazy.  The fact that anybody can publish anything for free online leads to a lack of discipline in thinking through why what you create is actually needed in the world.  Luce and Hadden didn’t have that luxury.  In order to raise the money to launch TIME, they had to have a clear concept and theirs was that their magazine would save people time.  In a brochure sent to prospective subscribers, they picture a character named Busy Man who “sits disconsolately in his living room surrounded by discarded newspapers,” Brinkley writes in The Publisher.  “I bought this mass of printed matter to find out what is going on in the world, but it’s no use!”  TIME offers an answer to the problem by presenting a rewritten and condensed version of all the world’s important news events and topics in a weekly 26-page magazine.  They promised 100 short articles each week, distilled from 90 newspapers and periodicals, with no article longer than 400 words.  In developing the magazine concept, they  cut up newspapers into individual articles and rearranged them into different categories and formats. They were pioneers of the news mashups that are all the rage today.
  • Ride the wave of a larger trend. Brinkley points out that TIME was “also a response to the nationalization of American commerce and culture. The era following World War I saw a rapid standardization in the way many Americans lives, worked and understood modern life.  So, too, emerged a homogeneous, middle-class mind set, one re-oriented toward national issues, events and institutions.”  TIME was, for a time, the only news publication available nationally and played a key role in this trend, Brinkley writes.   Today that trend has come full circle, with little faith in institutions such as government and the media, giving rise to personalities such as Fox News’ Glenn Beck whose stock in trade is playing to this mindset.
  • Have a personality and a point of view. Luce and Hadden detested the dull prose of The New York Times.  They were determined that TIME should have a distinct voice and used Homer’s The Iliad as a model, Brinkley writes.  They adopted Homer’s use of compound adjectives such as “wine-dark sea” and “fleet-footed Achilles” and invented their own compound adjectives to describe people in the news, such as “snaggle-toothed” and “bandy-legged,”  wrote Brinkley.  The Iliad also favored inverted sentences such as “Up to his side he dashed and flanked the Great Ajax tight,” and TIME used the same style in sentences such as “Up to the White House portico rolled a borrowed automobile,” the book said.   Another hallmark of TIME’s style was vivid words.  “People in TIME were ‘famed,’ not ‘famous’; ‘potent,’ not ‘powerful’; ‘blatant,’ not ‘obvious’,” Brinkley writers.   And TIME became known for its cover portraits of famous and powerful people and its “man of the year” selection that started back in 1927.  Having a recognizable style and personality can play a big role in establishing media brands — we see it today in magazines such as Wired,  media personalities such as Stephen Colbert and in many other settings.
  • Think about the business/sustainability model from the start. There are lots of media startups whose first primary goal is to just grow quickly, and figure out how to make money later.  Twitter is in this mode right now, with tens of millions of users and just one revenue idea proposed recently called the “sponsored Tweet.”  Among TIME’s first hires was Roy Larsen, brought on as the circulation manager, and he set about developing a list of subscribers so that was readership and an audience from the beginning.  Advertising was also there at the launch, with 15 ads in the premier issue, Brinkley writes. TIME was profitable within five years.
  • Believe in your idea even when others think you’re crazy. Luce and Hadden were obsessed with the idea of creating their new magazine, working day jobs at a Baltimore newspaper and then staying up all night to trade ideas and develop concepts.  Brinkley quotes a letter from Luce to a girlfriend in which Luce calls this project “the gamble of our lives on which everything depends, everything… the crazy half-romantic thing that has ruined thousands before us.”

TIME became a hit, and Luce went on to create other important magazines including Fortune, Life and Sports Illustrated, all huge successes in their day.  Though Luce’s empire weakened over time, Brinkley reminds us that “his magazines were important not only for their commercial success, but also for the way they helped create a media sea change, going on to provide information and entertainment for a national and then a global audience.”

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Bringing a community focus to health journalism

By Mary Lou Fulton

The most eye-opening thing I have learned since going to work for a health foundation is this:  where you live has a more profound effect on your health than whether you can see a doctor when you’re sick.  In short, place matters when it comes to your health and life expectancy, ideas that are at the heart of The California Endowment’s community health strategy.

The media and communications grants I make are aimed at advancing this more expansive view of health, which is not the conventional way that health journalism beats are defined.   A 2009 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that health care reform drove 40% of all coverage, followed by public health/swine flu at 36% percent and reporting on specific diseases at 24%.    These are event-driven topics that focus primarily on things that happen today (i.e. political developments in health reform, the latest flu outbreak data, the newest scientific study on obesity, and the like) versus focusing on life at the neighborhood level.

Covering health from a community perspective requires a different approach that combines elements from a number of beats, and it’s great to see a growing body of journalism that tells these stories in areas such as:

  • Land use: City Council decisions on land use and zoning are usually covered by city hall reporters, but land use has a huge impact on health because it defined where parks and walking paths are located (offering more convenient places to exercise), where or whether shopping centers will be built, and proximity of homes to freeways. The California Bay Area city of Richmond is expected to become the first in the nation to incorporate health into the general plan that governs land use, as described in this HealthyCal.org video.
  • Violence: Crime is a health issue, not only when it results in physical and psychological harm but when it keeps fearful people inside their homes where they are less likely to exercise. Neighborhood violence also discourages economic development, such as the addition of new grocery stores, that offer convenient healthier food choices.  And violence has a disproportionate impact on young people, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reporting that homicide and suicide are the second and third leading causes of death among Americans aged 15-34.  A creative approach to reporting on this topic won Joe Carlson of ModernHealthCare.com an award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for “The Cost of Murder,” examining the toll that violence takes on communities and on the profits of hospitals in those neighborhoods.
  • Housing: If your home or apartment is toxic or infested with vermin, you will get sick.  Janet Wilson, with support from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, wrote about how residents of Maywood, California, are fighting to improve their contaminated tap water.  And The Los Angeles Times reported on an innovative program at the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center  where doctors cure illness by referring tenants to lawyers down the hall to pursue action against slumlords whose apartments are making people sick. As the article’s headline said, “Sometimes good legal help is the best medicine.”
  • Childhood obesity. Weight loss is often portayed as a matter of individual will, and personal decisions certainly are important.  But so are other factors, such as the food kids eat in school, the daily time devoted to P.E. and access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  The childhood obesity cause has found a powerful ally in chef Jamie Oliver, whose new Food Revolution television show focuses on this issue, for which he won a TED prize earlier this year.  Oliver’s TED Talk accepting the prize really makes the case for why this issue matters.
  • Life expectancy. Reporters Suzanne Bohan and Sandy Kleffman won a White House Correspondents Association award for their Shortened Lives series which included reporting on the differences in life expectancy among people who live in three Bay Area ZIP codes — including a striking 16-year difference in neighborhoods just 12 miles apart.

While all of this work is impressive, it is largely “special project style” reporting, which involves temporarily focusing on a topic and then moving on to something else.  For this reason, I’m working toward grants that create full-time positions focused on community health so that this important topic is not addressed only in projects, but becomes an ongoing and essential part of local journalism.

The Endowment’s recent support of investigative reporting startup California Watch is an example of this approach, with two new positions specifically focused on community-level concerns.   Another example is our grant to OaklandLocal.com to train East Oakland residents interested in writing about the food environment in their neighborhood. More grants are in the works, and I look forward to sharing all the great stories I’m confident will emerge when a community lens is used to report on health.

Being independent doesn’t mean going it alone

By Mary Lou Fulton

In traditional journalism, there is a proud and important tradition of independence.   But along the way many traditional news organizations came to define independence as doing everything yourself, rather than maintaining an independent perspective in practicing journalism.  Thankfully that is changing, with a new collaborative ethos that is fueling local media startups and a new awareness among traditional media about the potential of working with others.

A number of examples were shared at today’s get-together of  New Voices grantees who have started an impressive variety of locally-focused media projects:

  • Traditional media are joining forces with neighborhood blogs to create rich local media networksJ-Lab’s Networked Journalism project gave grants to newspapers to explore this opportunity, and The Seattle Times put that money to good use by collaborating with  more than a dozen neighborhood blogs in a move that makes The Times’ site more comprehensive and sends traffic to the blogs.
  • Meetup.com is being used to support community journalism. In Texas, the founder of the new investigative journalism site The Austin Bulldog needed a helping hand, so Ken Martin created  a Meetup Group that has brought together a small but enthusiastic group that is now working together to bring project ideas to life.
  • Crowdfunding catches fire. The community-funded journalism model pioneered by Spot.us is expanding beyond the Bay Area.  For example, a collaboration between OaklandLocal.com, New America Media (both California Endowment grantees), public media outlet KALW and Placeblogger.com raised  $2,000 to send a reporter to Los Angeles to report on an important local trial that was moved from Oakland to Los Angeles.    Coverage of the trial of a transit policeman accused in the shooting death of Oscar Grant will be carried by these outlets and others.  And from north of the border, the Canadian news site The Tyee has created two funds to support independent journalism.

Today, The New York Times’ Bay Area blog posted about how the San Francisco Bay Area is emerging as a hotbed of nonprofit journalism, and noted that collaboration is a key driver.   “All of these organizations have been talking to one another about doing collaborations and how we can support one another,” said Michael Stoll, the executive director of San Francisco Public Press.  “There are not enough donors or people in these organizations to make a difference on our own.”

“Shortened Lives” series wins major national award

I was so pleased to hear word this week that the “Shortened Lives” series of reports about how where you live affects your health will be honored with the Edgar A. Poe Award from the White House Correspondents Association.  On May 1, President Obama will present the award, which recognizes excellence in coverage of news of national or regional significance.

The idea for this series was proposed by two Bay Area News Group reporters, Suzanne Bohan and Sandy Kleffman, when they applied to participate in Health Journalism Fellowships program funded by The California Endowment at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Their idea turned into Shortened Lives, which included reporting on the differences in life expectancy among people who live in three Bay Area ZIP codes — including a striking 16-year difference in neighborhoods just 12 miles apart.   The series also highlighted how certain illnesses, such as asthma, vary by neighborhood and how local residents are working to address these disparities.

Shortened Lives, which took more than a year to produce, ran on the front pages of The Oakland Tribune and other Bay Area outlets for four days in December 2009.

It’s great to see committed journalists like Suzanne and Sandy  honored for their excellence.  Congratulations!  And I’d like to add my thanks to Michelle Levander and Martha Shirk of the Health Journalism Fellowships program who nurtured the development of this story through the fellowships program, and  to the Bay Area News group for giving these journalists the time and space for such an ambitious project.

This also gives me a great excuse to promote the upcoming May 12 application deadline for the next Health Journalism Fellowships training session, an all-expense paid program open to all journalists (and their editors) who have great ideas for health reporting projects.   And  to mention the May 5 application deadline for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Healthy Journalism, providing  grants of up to $10,000 for reporting on critical health issues facing underserved communities.