Twilight of the superheroes

The ghost of Time Inc.’s Henry Luce haunts Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the New York Times
By PETER KADZIS  |  April 28, 2010


While riding the New York subway one warm night in 1922, Hotchkiss-schooled, Yale-educated Henry Robinson Luce conjured the name of his epoch-defining magazine after spotting an arresting advertising placard.

Tycoon-to-be Luce stared. “TIME FOR A CHANGE,” he read. Time! Of course! Luce (anxious, expectant, ambitious, and — now — almost triumphant) would call his magazine Time.

Luce’s business partner, psychic rival, and fellow denizen of New Haven’s most elite secret club, Skull & Bones, was professional golden boy Brit Hadden. Hadden concurred with Luce’s genius: Time it would be. But not before Hadden added his own bit of flash. Time, Hadden decreed, would be . . . (drum roll), a “news magazine.”

Thus were born an icon of a publication, a groundbreaking genre, and the makings of an imperial media empire that, 88 years later, would outstrip founder Luce’s stable of worthy Presbyterian inventions — Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated — to include the vulgar, down-market, and obscenely profitable People, the amusing middle-brow confection Entertainment Weekly, the slick and vacuous InStyle, as well as the accessibly chic, almost provocative Hollywood-cable niche Home Box Office. Mass-cult content had merged with mid-cult audience to produce annual revenue of approximately $26 billion — despite the perennial disappointment and constant drag of CNN and its wraith-like, geezer headliner, Larry King.

What would dour, dutiful, power-obsessed Hank (as his intimates called him) make of good old Larry? The mind reels, backward . . .

‘Almost perfectly designed’
Alan Brinkley, the Allan Nevins Professor of American History at Columbia University, has done journalism junkies and students of popular culture an immense service by rescuing Luce from the confines of footnotes and the mist of legend with his new study, The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century.

Luce was one of a quartet of Americans who hailed from the middle of nowhere and emerged during the Roaring Twenties to reengineer a thriving journalistic marketplace, which outside of big cities was hokey and limited, but nevertheless extremely literate. These were, of course, the days before television’s narcotic began to corrode and compromise public intelligence. The challenges of the Great Depression, the 1950s boom in domesticity, the trials of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam all fortified a public insatiable for things to read, to be entertained or enlightened via words and images on a printed page.

Luce was not the only one to intuit this need. Harold Ross founded the New Yorker in 1925. DeWitt Wallace started Reader’s Digest in 1922. A Washington, DC–based wire-service reporter named W.M. Kiplinger in 1920 launched what grew into an eponymous family of weekly newsletters, giving the John and Jane Does of middle America access to inside political skinny and sophisticated financial and tax advice. And it was during this time that the syndicated newspaper column came into its own.

Before Rupert Murdoch (whose News Corporation harvests $30 billion in annual revenues), there was Luce. And before Luce, there were the press barons Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, and Robert McCormick. This swashbuckling trio of nativist nationalists cultivated working-class audiences with pungent headlines and sensational stories. Meanwhile, Adolph Ochs — and the New York Times he made respectable — sold the growing cadres of the haute bourgeoisie on the virtues of balanced reporting and understated display while simultaneously nurturing a reform-minded, internationalist point of view.

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