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.”