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Henry Luce The Man Who Shaped "The American Century"

Time Inc. | Facebook

Henry Luce
Founder of Time Inc.
Founded: 1923

"The human adventure does, as I believe, have meaning and purpose."-Henry Luce

Henry Luce was undoubtedly the most influential journalistic innovator of the first half of the 20th century. As editor in chief of Time, he helped create a new form of journalism, inventing the newsweekly and laying the groundwork for the modern mass print media. By the time he was 40, Luce had carved out an empire that included three wildly popular magazines, national radio programming, and newsreels that appeared every day in 8,000 movie theaters across America. At the height of his power, his words could sway government policy and mold public opinion.

Luce was born in 1898 in Tengchow (now P'eng-lai), China, where his father-a Presbyterian minister and missionary-headed a small college for Chinese converts to Christianity. Luce spent his entire childhood in China, and as a result, grew up with an idealized image of America as "an unfinished masterpiece of democratic liberalism and capitalism." It was an image he would never fully abandon.

Luce emerged from his youth with a deep sense of moral certainty, an unquenchable ambition and limitless curiosity. He read voraciously and developed an almost obsessive attraction to travel. It was his thirst for knowledge and experience that helped determine the direction of his career in life.

After graduating from Yale in 1920, Luce spent a year in England studying at Oxford before returning to the United States, where he took a job as a reporter alongside fellow Yale alum Britton Hadden. While working together, the two drew plans for an idea they had first discussed at Yale-a new type of weekly magazine that wouldn't simply report the news, but would also interpret it for those who did not have the time, the energy or the knowledge to interpret it for themselves. Sensing what would become the country's scarcest commodity, Luce named the magazine TIME, and designed it to be read in less than an hour.

"It'll never work," acclaimed journalist, editor and author H.L. Mencken told Luce before TIME's launch. But the ambitious young man remained undaunted. He and Hadden amassed $86,000, and with a staff consisting only of themselves and three other full-time writers, they published the first issue of TIME on March 3, 1923.

TIME quickly attracted a growing readership, doubling its circulation within a year. A major reason for the magazine's success was its uniqueness. Unlike other national periodicals such as Collier's and Scribner's, which tended to be more literary, TIME was an urgent, news-driven appraisal of the week's events written in a distinctive style (originated by Hadden) that featured brevity, brashness and shock, and captured the imagination of the growing college-educated public.

By 1928, Luce and Hadden were looking for new worlds to conquer and began working on a concept for a business magazine to be called Fortune, which, Luce declared, would provide entrepreneurs with a literature of their own. He insisted that his new publication be superbly researched and richly produced. To give Fortune more clout, he priced it a $1 per issue-a lavish sum for a magazine at that time.

But before the first issue could be published, Hadden died unexpectedly of blood poisoning in 1929. Luce was stunned, but he quickly pulled himself together and resumed work on Fortune, which first hit newsstands in February 1930, shortly after thousands of fortunes had instantly disappeared in the worst stock market crash in American history. Despite its unfortunate timing, Fortune was a success and made Luce an important figure on Wall Street. Luce continued to expand his empire by acquiring Architectural Forum, and he began producing "The March of Time," a series of newsreels which were heralded as the most imaginative of the era.

With TIME established as the leader in the field of weekly journalism and Fortune boasting a readership that included some of the country's top businesspeople, Luce turned his attention to photojournalism and introduced Life in 1936. With marvelous photographs and snappy captions, and stories ranging from the maudlin to the spectacular, Life became an instant phenomenon. Although its original print run of 466,000 copies was the largest first-issue printing in magazine publishing history, demand for the magazine quickly exceeded the supply, and copies sold at a premium. Within a year, Life's circulation exceeded 1 million readers per week.

At the end of the 1930s, Time Inc. boasted three of the top-selling magazines in the country. But Luce had more than business on his mind. He could see the gathering storm in Europe and, through his magazines, began to prepare an isolationist America for a world war he felt was inevitable. In the winter of 1941, he published his famous essay "The American Century," in which he argued that the United States could determine the outcome of the war, then build a free and orderly world after an Allied victory. The editorial, which ultimately reached tens of millions of Americans, sparked a fierce debate between internationalists and isolationists. But that debate became moot when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and catapulted America into World War II.

Time flourished during wartime, and at the end, it emerged as one of the largest and wealthiest publishing enterprises in the world. In 1954, hoping to profit from the population's search for leisure and pleasure, Luce launched the hugely successful Sports Illustrated. By the end of 1955, Time was earning revenues of more than $200 million a year and would continue to grow until Luce's retirement in 1964. At the time of Luce's death in 1967, Life's circulation was 750 million and TIME had a circulation of 350 million.

Today, TIME and the competitors it spawned bear faint resemblance to the original. But they still owe a great debt to the founder of newsmagazine journalism. Henry Luce's vision of a magazine that would explain and interpret complex events for a broad audience led to news analysis as opposed to straight reporting, and changed journalism forever.

Lasting Impressions
Henry Luce is credited with innovating many of the techniques that have become standard journalistic practices. He was the first publisher to emphasize personalities in the news. In TIME, he started the concept of group journalism by introducing the reporter-researcher-writer team. And in Life, he created the photographer-writer team.

Stick To Your Guns
Henry Luce believed so strongly in his editorial vision that he often took enormous risks to grow his titles. In 1936, when Life debuted and became an instant blockbuster, the cost of printing 1 million copies per week surpassed revenue, and Time Inc. started losing millions. For fear of alienating his subscribers, Luce refused to scale back production or alter the quality of the magazine. Instead, he encouraged his printer and paper suppliers to find more efficient publishing methods by guaranteeing them a fair margin of profit despite Time's losses. The strategy worked. By 1939, Life had not only become profitable, but it was the most widely circulated magazine in the world and would remain so until the 1960s.

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