Note: This is the third installment in a roughly transcribed series of posts reflecting my remarks this past week at the Kitchn/Product Team Retreat in Florida.
The last thing I want to read from is a recent biography of Henry Luce, who founded Time Magazine with Briton Hadden in 1923. They were both 23 years old and just out of college. While Hadden died suddenly six years later, Luce went on to start Fortune Magazine as well as LIFE magazine, eventually growing the company to dozens of titles including Sports Illustrated, Travel & Leisure and even People. By the 1960’s Time Inc. was the largest and most prestigious magazine publisher in the world, influencing the language of the day as well as presidential elections.
But what I like are the early days, when the magazines were very much living ideas and not yet overwhelmed advertising platforms. Listen to this description of Luce’s planning for a new magazine, Fortune:
Luce’s idea for what became Fortune had come in part out of his own longtime and growing curiosity about the world of business and the people who led it – and unsurprising interest for someone who was himself a young businessman working in the booming economic climate of the late 1920’s. Seldom in American history had there been more interest in and enthusiasm for the corporate world and its leaders, and enthusiasm epitomized by the laconic Calvin Coolidge’s claim that “the business of America is business.” Luce echoed Coolidge’s’ view. “Business is essentially our civilization… Business is our life,” he said in a March 1929 speech.
Now this is not the same as our project, and he is planning a very much high end magazine here, but see how big he is thinking? This is where I want us to go and this is what I want us to envision when we are putting out our work each day.
And he too was thinking hard about the form factor this new magazine would take, just as we have been doing with our product team.
Luce’s almost passionate commitment to Fortune – his “real love among his magazines,” Peter Drucker, briefly a Time Inc. writer, once observed – began to pour out of him once he threw himself into the planning. Among his first decisions was to emphasize design – to make Fortune “a beautiful magazine, if possible the most beautiful in the world.” It was certainly among the most elaborately and lavishly designed publications of its time. Luce hired “one of the finest typographers and art directors in the country, Thomas Maitland Cleland, who revived an elegant eighteenth century typeface, Baskerville, for the magazine. Luce also chose unusually expensive paper that would not have the shiny look of conventional coated stock but could still accommodate high quality photographs. He commissioned eminent artists and designers – among them Rockwell Kent, Diego Rivera, Charles Sheeler and Fernand Leger – to create elegant, complex covers. (The first issue bore a striking black and bronze image by Cleland and an almost abstract “wheel of fortune,” symbolizing not jut the magazine’s title but industry and progress more broadly.) Fortunes’ aesthetic represented, among other things, Luce’s own new attraction to modern art and design.
Only one printer in the country could handle Fortunes’ exacting demands, the Osborne Chromatic Gravure Company in New Jersey. It was necessary to print each side of each page in a separate run. Covers sometimes had to go through seven different print runs to handle the complex coloring. Fortune was not only expensive to print. It was also, unsurprisingly, expensive to buy – one dollar an issue, an astonishing price in and era when most magazines sold for five or ten cents, but one that Luce correctly predicted would give Fortune a kind of status that would attract the affluent readership he was targeting – “”those active, intelligent and influential individuals who have a relatively large stake in U.S. Industry and Commerce.”
But what goes inside this magazine? Even Luce didn’t know at the beginning. He had to work it out and he did so by outlining articles by title. This is what we do when we plan our editorial calendar a month ahead – we map out the landscape of our aspirational message – your home can be better through connection to resources, information and one another - in post titles, each one of which represents a facet of our thinking.
“And now the question,” Luce wrote in a crude early prospectus. What’s going to be IN this magazine?” Luce, Lloyd-Smith, and the few others who worked on the creation of Fortune spend days, even months, proposing and testing story ideas. Luce himself used his few idle hours – sitting in hotel lobbies, riding on trains – listing potential topics on scraps of borrow stationery: “The Rothschilds,” “Inheritance-The Family Business,” the “Biggest Farmers in the World, “ “Total value of artworks in the U.S.,” “Sleep - how many hours,” the “Power Trust,” “Sewage,” “Why Jews in the clothing business?” According to another early prospectus Fortune would be “not simply a magazine to look at or through.” Like Time it would a “a magazine to read from cover to cover.”
We are now ten years old and moving into the next phase of our life. Our challenge is to become not simply two websites that readers come to, surf and leave, but something they read end to end. We already know our most loyal readers do this, but we have a great opportunity in front of us to go further.
As Ingvar Kamprad said, we are endeavoring to communicate a lifestyle and a new approach to living in the world. One that is unfolding every day around us through this generation of readers. You are the messengers whose task it is to capture all of this and give it form through words, pictures, graphics and web design (even page load! Did you know that in 1963, recommendations from Time Inc. based on how it delivered magazines led to the introduction of ZIP codes by the United States Post Office?).
Time Magazine was, at it’s height, the largest weekly news magazine in the world, with a circulation of 25 million. We currently have a monthly readership of 27 million. This is A LOT of readers. We touch and influence many, many people. What we say matters and what more we can say, teach or show is far beyond where we are right now.
As great as Time Inc. was, they are dying right now, and I don’t see it ever living as fully again. I had lunch last week with a friend working there, and the mice are already leaving the building literally and figuratively (Time Inc was spun off in 2013 and all the titles are moving to the World Trade Center this year).
I think this decline is going to be similar for all the major publishing houses from Hearst to Meredith to Conde Nast to Time – and this is our current competition. While magazines will never disappear, a. they will not be the primary way of reaching readers in the future and b. these companies cannot and will not be the ones who do it digitally. These brands are old. The voices are old. The advertising integrations too heavy.
NOTE: Just today I was reading about the new New York Times Magazine, how groundbreaking it is meant to be, and then I read it online. Couldn’t tell the difference. Typically, most of the changes are for the print edition. The writing and the voice and the whole thing failed to grab me at all. To me this is a project with a voice that has no clear readership or purpose OR anything of importance to communicate.
Which means that the time for us is now. The last ten years were too early, but this next ten is not. As I said at the beginning, I am risk averse, but I’m already moving more aggressively this year to speed up our growth. We are more stable now, we have the money, and growing ourselves now, like Time Magazine in the 20’s, is essential if we want to become a dominant voice and company in the future. This is not a risk. This is what is being asked of us.
You all have another day and a half together. Use is wisely. Faith and Scott fought hard for the finances for this retreat as well as one other one later in the year. They are a good idea, particularly for teams that all work remotely, and I think it’s incredibly valuable for you all to be working together in one place right now. Make good use of this time for it is very precious. That is your responsibility, and I look forward to seeing what comes back from you all in the weeks to come.
February 19, 2015