How the world really works.
Only one man could have written the sentence that appeared in that long-ago prospectus for a new magazine: "Accurately, vividly and concretely to describe Modern business is the greatest journalistic assignment in history."
(FORTUNE Magazine) – In 1930 Henry Luce created an entirely new kind of magazine ...
Its mission was simple, but absurdly ambitious: to explain ...
The inverted syntax, the cadenced march of adverbs, the unembarrassed superlative offered without the slightest hiccup of qualification (not to mention the weird capital in "Modern")--each betrayed the hand of the 31-year-old Henry Robinson Luce. Six years had passed since Luce and his business partner, Briton Hadden, had sent Time out into a world that had evidently been waiting for it. Their corporate treasury was full; the U.S. economy had been rocketing forward for nearly a decade; their confidence was ripe. "We will not be over-optimistic," read a cautious--for Luce--memo to the Time Inc. board of directors about the new business magazine he wanted to launch. "We will recognize that this business slump may last as long as an entire year."
That memo was written in November 1929. If it seemed an unpropitious time to start a magazine about business--much less a magazine priced at a staggering $1 an issue, when you could buy the Sunday New York Times for a nickel--you wouldn't have known it from the way Luce and company proceeded. Only four months passed between the initial investigation of the idea and the Time Inc. board of directors' 8--2 vote to proceed; the first issue, clad in its own cardboard box, appeared just eight months later. There were no focus groups, no trial issues. Luce's research, such as it was, seemed to consist of a flock of letters he sent out to a long roster of plutocrats, describing a magazine that existed
only in his head. The first issue, like those that followed for more than a decade, was like no magazine anyone had ever seen--an expansive 11 inches by 14 inches, its pages decorated by the great photographers and illustrators of the time, the paper itself so thick and creamy you could almost taste it.
It read like no other magazine as well. Partly that was due to a roster of writers who were just starting out: James Agee, not yet the master he would become of virtually every known form of prose; Archibald MacLeish, not yet the Pulitzer Prize--winning poet and playwright; Dwight Macdonald, probably already a Trotskyite (which made no difference to Luce, who valued talent over ideology) but not yet one of the outstanding cultural critics of the age. It was really Luce's conception that made the magazine distinctive, however. As an early promotional document promised, FORTUNE contained no inspirational essays, no "defending" of business, no "ghost-written banalities by Big Names"--none of the thin, wan Babbittry that characterized the business press of the day. In fact, Luce wrote, "If Babbitt doesn't like literature he doesn't have to read it." What he and his editors sought to do was nothing less than explain the way the world worked.
FORTUNE stories took many forms: personality profiles, dynastic sagas, chronicles of scientific advances. But the primary engine for explaining how the world works was a mighty vehicle known in the office as the "company story"--a long, vivid portrait of one of the major businesses of the day, vast in sweep and intimate in detail, encompassing everything you could possibly want to know about AT&T or RCA, the Pennsylvania Railroad or Coca-Cola. Articles like those were the magazine's "pièce de résistance," said managing editor (1931--35) Ralph Ingersoll. "Our racket is telling how people make money, make fortunes." The very first one, on Swift & Co., included a full-page illustration of a hog, detailing how each inch and ounce of it would be used for various commercial, industrial, and nutritional purposes (thereby enhancing the Swiftian fortunes). "The reason we put that pig there," Luce said later, "was that we wanted to establish that we were not talking about abstractions but real things, like 'here's a damn pig.' "
Great magazines had been built on visions much less clear than that one.
Like American business itself, FORTUNE evolved over the next three-quarters of a century. Wartime paper shortages reduced its size and its lavishness. Luce's postwar agenda led him to reposition it as a magazine on "a mission ... to assist in the successful development of American business enterprise at home and abroad." Subsequent editors accommodated (or led) their readers as they became more interested in the intersection of business and government, or the democratization of the capital markets, or the transformative power of technology.
But even as FORTUNE has changed and prospered, it's hard to imagine any modern public company, including Time Inc., executing a similar launch today. These days most publishers approach investment in a new magazine not as the manifestation of a noble idea--"the greatest journalistic assignment in history"--but as the product of cold-eyed market testing. As bizarre as it may seem, the worst depression in American history provided a more congenial atmosphere for an ambitious new magazine than it would probably find today.
Still, genetics is destiny, and this magazine's current generation of writers, photographers, editors, and designers inescapably bear the DNA of that original FORTUNE. They still believe in the craft of storytelling; they still see virtue in the fine art of deconstructing complexity; they demonstrate, even more than their predecessors, a dedication to relentless reporting unencumbered by partisan agenda, uncolored by any mission other than pure journalism.
I'm fairly certain that Henry Luce wouldn't recognize the world of business that FORTUNE covers today. His American Century has given way to a Global Century, his all too heroic tycoons have been replaced all too often by CEOs whose feet are made of basest clay. But I do think he'd recognize his original vision in the magazine you hold in your hands. If we can no longer be charmed by a detailed map of the parts of a hog, we're compensated instead with a vastly more knowing and more sharp-edged approach to the world of business--a fortnightly acknowledgment of the sophistication of the magazine's readers; the expertise of its journalists; and a 75-year tradition of looking at the world through the lens of business every bit as "accurately, vividly, and concretely" as its founder would have hoped.
DANIEL OKRENT recently completed his tenure as the first public editor of the New York Times. He is a former editor- at-large of Time Inc.