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Henry Luce: The Master of a Changing Media Landscape

It is no secret that journalism—and especially magazine journalism—is facing hard and dangerous times.  Local newspapers are closing at an accelerating rate.  Reporting staffs are being reduced in news rooms all over the country, and no one has yet been able to imagine a new form of journalism that can support future journalists.  Newsweek, one of the most important magazines of the last seven decades, is now for sale, without any visible buyers.  U. S. News and World Report has already abandoned its role as a newsmagazine and has become instead mostly a rating agency for schools and universities.  And Time, the first newsmagazine, bears almost no relationship to the magazine it was as recently as twenty years ago.  In the face of the dramatic changes in the nature of the media and the accelerating decline of the institutions of journalism, it may be useful to consider the achievements of a man who was one of the great journalistic innovators of many decades ago.

Henry Luce was the co-founder of Time magazine, the founder of Fortune and Life, and the longtime head of Time Inc.  He was an unlikely revolutionary.  He was the son of a Presbyterian missionary in China, a product of elite boarding schools, a Skull and Bonesman at Yale, an ardent Republican through most of his life.  He became one of the wealthiest men in America, and he lived accordingly.  He married one of the most famous and glamorous women in America, Clare Boothe Luce, and both of them used their marriage (a mostly unhappy one) to burnish their reputations.  He disliked most of the New Deal and loathed Franklin Roosevelt (“It is my duty to go on hating him,” he said after FDR’s death).  His famous 1941 essay in Life, “The American Century,” was a call to reshape the world on the American model.  He was a passionate champion of America’s least successful wars.  If he had had his way, the United States would have used both the Korean and the Vietnam conflicts to “unleash” Chiang Kai-shek and join him in overthrowing the communist regime in China.

What made Luce a revolutionary figure in American life was not his strong political views or his religion or his missionary zeal.  It was his success in creating a new era of communications that had an enormous impact on the culture of the twentieth century.  At the precocious age of twenty-four, Luce and his brilliant classmate, friend, partner—and rival—Briton Hadden created the first “newsmagazine” (one of many words they invented themselves).  Time itself was also something new —a concise summary of the news of the world, published weekly, and marketed throughout the United States and later around the world.  Time was not to everyone’s taste, with its deliberately idiosyncratic language and its often arch opinions.  But for the hundreds of thousands (and eventually millions) of readers—most of whom had in the past received news only from provincial local papers—Time was among the first publications that made the news of the world available to people in all parts of the nation.  Time became a kind of glue, providing professional and other (mostly middle-class) people with a common, reliable, and concise guide to information that was now more important to them than ever before.  It was designed, as the magazine’s advertising promised, to be a publication for “busy people”; Time could be read in an hour, “cover-to-cover,” the publishers promised, and in that hour, readers could absorb all the important news of the world.  In Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel Babbitt , the title character spoke triumphantly of the “sane standardization of stores, offices, streets, hotels, and newspapers throughout the United States,” which illustrated “how strong and enduring a type is ours.”  To Lewis, this “standardization” was a mark of society’s arid consumerism; but to most middle-class Americans, such changes represented progress.  To Luce and Hadden, their contribution to progress was the creation of a market for a national newsmagazine.

Hadden died prematurely of a strep infection in 1929, a few days after his thirty-first birthday.  Luce moved forward with his own vision without looking back.  In 1930, the early months of the Great Depression, he launched the first truly serious business magazine—Fortune, a dazzlingly beautiful monthly designed to examine business and capitalism in a way that would provide knowledge about the economy that he believed most Americans, not just businessmen, should know.  He hired talented writers—some of whom went on to important literary careers (Dwight Macdonald, James Agee, Archibald Macleish, among others)—who examined and explained areas of business that were largely new to them and to their readers.  He recruited talented photographers, among them Margaret Bourke-White.  Fortune was, for a time, a lively, literate, serious, and path-breaking magazine in a field that had previously been largely celebratory.

Six years later, Luce published the first issue of Life—perhaps the most popular magazine ever published in America.  It was not the first “picture magazine” in the new age of photography.  But it was by far the most creative and successful, offering a visual image of its time and revealing (as Luce wrote in his famous prospectus) “the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud...strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadow in the jungle and on the moon...things hidden behind walls and within rooms; things dangerous to come to.”   From the beginning, it was an optimistic magazine, which portrayed its time as an era of consensus and unity despite the trials of the Great Depression.  In the 1940s, it sought to be the great portrait of World War II.  And in the 1950s, it was the glowing story of American prosperity, power, and creativity—with scarcely a nod to the many conflicts that were brewing just below the era’s shiny surface.

Luce launched other innovations as well—The March of Time, the first newsreels to offer documentary features (not just headlines and beauty pageants).  It won an Academy Award for its creativity, helped along by the lobbying of David Selznick, a friend of Luce.  There was a weekly national radio program drawn from Time.  And in 1954, the first serious sports magazine—Sports Illustrated—began publication.  Like Fortune, it relied on good writers (among them William Faulkner, A.J. Liebling, Wallace Stegner, Budd Schulberg, and John Steinbeck).  Luce insisted that it should elevate the world of sports from being “just a game” to being a metaphor for the human condition.  The Time Inc. publications were extraordinarily expensive to publish and distribute, but Luce resisted economizing and believed that spending more money to create greater quality was the best strategy for success.  As one of his associates put it, they moved ahead in “an atmosphere of complete and serene confidence” to grasp “the chance of a lifetime.”

From the mid-1930s through the late 1950s, Time Inc. was one of the largest news organizations in the world, with bureaus on every continent and with reporters active in most nations.  They claimed to reach over 20 million people every week—and even more during World War II, which the Time Inc. magazines reported at least as intensely as any other organization.  The company’s great success was partly a result of shrewd management and lavish but careful budgeting, but it was also a result of Luce himself, who had looked into the future and had seen an increasingly integrated nation—bound together by railroads, highways, radio, movies, and the rise of a national corporate culture.  As a result, Americans would, more than ever, need a vast amount of information and an efficient way of accessing it.  He embraced that future and created vehicles that served the needs of his rapidly changing time.

Luce was a brilliant editor, but a highly opinionated one; and the many successes of his magazines were frequently tarnished by the strong biases that Luce (only sometimes) succeeded in imposing on his reporters and writers.  In 1940, both Life and Time became something close to campaign literature for Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate for president.  In 1952, he promoted Eisenhower’s election (and indeed the eight years of Eisenhower’s presidency) with equally adoring approval.  But Luce was not a reactionary, and on issues that were not important to him he could be surprisingly open-minded.

By the time of Luce’s retirement in 1964 (three years before his death), his empire was beginning to show its age.  Time Inc. was still thriving, but it was rivaled by television and by countless newer magazines that competed effectively with it.  His colleagues prodded him to move into television and to branch out into other areas.  But Luce, no longer the restless pioneer, resisted diversification in his last years and tried instead to protect what he had already created.  Life had ceased to be profitable in the late 1950s and finally ceased publication in 1972, five years after Luce’s death.  Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated have survived and reinvented themselves repeatedly as the publishing world has changed.  But like all magazines and newspapers, they face tremendous challenges.

What would the young, ambitious, innovative Henry Luce have thought about the opportunities that might await him in our own challenging time?  Much of what Luce cared about in his own era might seem to him irretrievably lost.  For decades, he had worked to portray (and shape) America as a united, common culture.  Despite differences in class or race or region, Americans, he believed, shared a basic set of values that transcended diversity.  “Nobody is mad at anybody,” a Life article brightly announced in the 1950s—at perhaps the height of the belief that there was a broadly shared vision of America.  In our own fractured and fractious time, such an assumption would find few believers.  But Luce’s project of the 1950s and 1960s—promoting a vision of a coherent “national purpose”—is not irrelevant to our own time, despite the radical changes in the character of American life. 

In other ways, Luce might feel more at home in our own time.  He was comfortable with diversity.  He was a lifelong support of racial equality and began promoting it as early as 1923.  He attacked Joseph McCarthy in Time long before such criticisms were common.  He supported labor unions, social security, and other New Deal measures, despite his intense dislike of Roosevelt.  He was an admirer of both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and was supportive of the Great Society.  According to his son, he voted against Goldwater in 1964.  Luce welcomed progress and was fascinated by the great changes around him.  And he believed that all Americans could be educated through the dissemination of knowledge—a project embraced today by government, academia, and large areas of journalism and communication.

One of the most powerful results of the digital age has been to create a vast body of new knowledge and information—so vast as to be almost impossible to absorb.  And a related result has been to fragment information, creating discrete communities of knowledge that often reflect individuals’ prior beliefs and preferences.  Luce would, I believe, resist both those trends in our time, just as he resisted similar ones decades ago, and would seek ways to use the new tools technology has created to broaden, not fragment, the national culture.

Luce was above all a seeker of vehicles of change, and the magazines he created were breakthroughs in the history of journalism.  Time was the first and most successful “newsmagazine.”  Fortune reinvented the business journal.  Life turned photographs into a powerful tool of journalism.  He had no fear of the “new,” and he welcomed it through most of his life—modern art (which he once had loathed), modern technology, modern design (he bought an architecture magazine in the 1930s because he saw it as a chronicle of modernism), and modern business (he was always attracted to the most creative and progressive business leaders and considered himself one of them).  For all his political conservatism on many issues, he was a man in search of the future.

In our time, he would face the seemingly intractable problem of monetizing digital information, something few newspapers, magazines, or book publishers have so far succeeded in solving; and he would face enormous competition from thousands of individuals and organizations that are already trying to respond to these challenges.  But Henry Luce—for all his many flaws and sometimes noxious biases—was an innovator, a visionary, and a man of vast and daunting self-confidence.  Were he to live in our time trying once again to revolutionize the spread of knowledge, he might find his talents much in demand.