Time Inc. - The Ghost of Henry Luce Is Alive and Well

The magazines at Time inc. represent some of the most valued and trusted brands in publishing. From Fortune, to Sports Illustrated, to People. And of course, there's Time Magazine itself--the newsweekly that stands alone as a beacon of quality newsweekly journalism.

But if you get in a time machine and go back to the early 1900's--you'd find yourself in a time that's in some ways like this one. It was, in its way, a time when content creation was growing dramatically. There was a flourishing of publishing--magazines were sprouting up at home and abroad.

All this content, too much for any individual to manage, created a problem--and an opportunity. So a brash young prep school student decided to nominate himself the best able man to sort out the signal from the noise.

The year was 1916, and soon to be magazine maverick was then the young Henry Luce was graduating from the elite prep school, Hotchkiss in Connecticut. And the magazine would be called Time.

He was the son of American Protestant missionaries in China and arrived in the United States at age 14. As biographer Douglas Brinkley reports, "He had overweening ambitions even then, along with a highly developed sense of his own importance. He had none of the advantages that his classmates' money could buy, and knew so little about American popular culture that prep school slang was alien to him. By graduation he had become editor of a campus publication and boastfully labeled it "First in the Prep School World."

But Time wasn't to be known back in 1923 as a magazine of writers; it was instead a collection of news of the world--a concise summary that was published weekly and marketed around the United States. Time was able to make the ideas and articles of the world available to U.S. readers, serving as a single source of information for middle-class people with a need to be well-read but without the time to pore over the world's periodicals.

In 1923, as Luce was readying Time's debut issue, he had a clear vision for what the newsmagazine was going to be: cogent, compartmentalized, and clear. The language woven throughout was rooted in the founder's classical education and employed vivid turns of phrase such as wine-dark sea.

Now, 90 years later--the magazines of Time Inc. are among the elite of publishing--the top of the content creation food chain. But that wasn't how it all began. In fact, as Luce biographer Douglas Brinkly tells the story--there were sliced-up copies of The New York Times and piles of foreign magazines everywhere around the offices. Luce's idea, and that of his business partner, Briton Hadden, was to condense all the news busy people needed to know into one weekly read. The magazine, Luce wrote, would 'serve the illiterate upper classes, the busy business man, the tired debutant, to prepare them at least once a week for a table conversation.' There was not a lot of brooding about other people's intellectual property rights."

Michael Kinsley, writing in the Atlantic explains: "Time was intended from the start to be what we now call 'aggregation' or (if we're being hoity-toity) 'curation.' Although it later succumbed to bureaucratic bloat--an insane system of researchers feeding material to reporters that fed it to writers--at the beginning it was just a lot of smart-ass Yalies rewriting The New York Times. "

But snappy re-writes and topical summaries are a long faded memory in the house that Luce built. Today--the magazines of Time Inc are locked into a costly content creation playbook. And even as they see the fast moving shift to digital, and the emergence of social media and curated content, the events of the past week make it clear that the institution isn't going to change quickly or easily.

After just five months on the job, Jack Griffin was sacked as the CEO. The media rumor mill is buzzing about what he did to so quickly get the old guard to go to Timc Warner corporate and threaten a mass exodus of top talent.

Without insider knowledge, one thing is clear. The revolution that Henry Luce began back in 1923 is now firmly in the hands of web publications, and flexible publishers who can embrace a future in which content creation and content curation live hand in hand.

The irony of this is that Time Magazine created the concept of an aggregated and curated news publication--and now faces competition from the very concepts that it honed and then evolved beyond. Everything old is new again. But the game isn't over, and without knowing what happened, it's impossible to know why Griffin was pushed out. What is clear is that whomever takes the gig next will tread far more carefully on the institution and it's time honored ways. This at a time when changes in the publishing world are happening almost overnight.

For new agile publications and feisty competitors, there's a lot to win. For Time Inc. the shift will be harder, and the risks greater. With such a grip on the old model, they've got the most to lose.

Steven Rosenbaum is the author of Curation Nation, the McGrawHill title that covers the changing landscape of content, consumers, and creation.

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  • Susan Roy

    Correction: The Luce biography was written by Alan Brinkley, not Douglas Brinkley.