"Time Magazine"


by David Abrahamson

Northwestern University


Encyclopedia of American Journalism (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2006)




One unique aspect of magazines, as opposed to other media forms, is the way in which they mirror the social reality of their times. For example, the modern newsmagazine form, invented by Henry R. Luce in the early 1920s with the founding of Time magazine, was an ideal reflection of both the informational appetites and cultural preoccupations of the rapidly emerging middle class in mid-20th century America. Central to their success, the new periodical format promised to help their readers cope with modernity itself. "No publication," Time's prospectus proclaimed, "has adapted itself to the time which busy men are able to spend on simply keeping informed." Moreover, and no less importantly, Time would be what later-day marketers would term a "positional good," a signifier of status and coffee-table proof that its readers were engaged in the affairs, national and global, of the day.

      By any measure, it proved a winning publishing formula. Coining the phrase itself "newsmagazine," Henry Luce and his partner Britton Hadden founded Time in 1923, and within a decade were competing for readers and advertising revenue with two rivals. Both Newsweek (originally News-Week) and U.S. News (later to add and World Report) were started in 1933, and both closely mimicked Time's narrative-digest approach to the news and rigorously compartmentalized departmental structure, e.g. "The Nation," "The World," "Science," "Business," "The Arts." It perhaps ought to be noted, however, that it was in the realms of objectivity and political preference, however, that Time's competitors strove to differentiate themselves, with Newsweek exhibiting a greater reluctance to editorialize in its news columns and U.S. News and World Report more fervent in its support of conservative interpretations of events.

      It can be argued that Time's signal contribution to American journalism was to transform both the definition of news and the way it was presented. With its knack for recapping its choice of the week's most significant events with knowing finality, the publication quickly found a successful niche. To the magazine's good fortune, the United States emerged from the Depression and World War II posed on the cusp of unparalleled affluence. For instance, an unprecedented percentage of the population --- over two-thirds, by most measures --- would soon claim membership in an expanding middle class. As a product of (and perhaps a catalyst for) this sociocultural transformation, Time enjoyed a unique role in American life. By helping to both define and reinforce the communal, consensual, and conformist values of middle-class postwar society, it commanded a special place in the popular and political discourse of the nation.

      It should also be noted that the postwar success of the Time and the other newsmagazines was not solely an American phenomenon. Clearly, the weekly narrative digest form was a journalistic product whose efficacy editors and publishers around the world have been able to replicate. Indeed, in many countries the dominant newsweeklies -- for example, The Economist in the UK, Germany's Der Spiegel, Le Point in France, MacLeans and L'Actualité [NOTE ACCENT AIGU] in Canada, Mexico's Milenio -- have enjoyed an unparalleled influence.

      The last three decades of the 20th century, however, were not as kind to the newsweekly form. The first significant threat arose in the early 1970s, when a majority of the reading public began to receive their news via television. As a result, it became apparent that the standard format of a news digest, no matter how good a job it performed summarizing the previous week's events, had ever less appeal in a world where many readers had already heard the news. (It is perhaps worth noting that, since the mid-1990s, it can be argued that the Internet, with its wealth of highly visible and frequently visited news sites, poses a comparable threat.)

      Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, by the 1970s it was clear that a larger societal shift, born in part by the upheavals of the preceding decade, was underway. The result was a fractionization of culture and concomitant "individualization" of interests that drove a trend in magazine publishing favoring smaller circulation publications serving the specialized interests of more targeted audiences -- and many very well established mass-market magazines such as Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post all ceased publication.

      By the 1980s and early 1990s, it was certain that the core franchises of Time and the other newsmagazines -- in effect, their traditional role in the weekly reading habits of the news-consuming public -- would have to be rethought. This was particularly true if it was accepted as a given that, for business reasons, there could be no significant reductions in the newsweeklies' large mass-audience circulation figures (Time has, since the 1960s, had a paid circulation of approximately 4 million; in comparison, Newsweek has 3 million and U.S. News and World Report, 2 million.)

      Well before the turn of the century, it had become apparent what changes, exactly, Time's editors considered necessary to secure the magazine's future. Once again, it was generally regarded as the trend-setter, and its competitors soon followed suit. The new editorial formula called for a more user-friendly approach. The number and size of photographs and informational graphic devices was greatly increased. Special attempts were made to insure that the publication was both literally and figuratively more colorful. Narrative journalism had always been Time's stock in trade, but now it was practiced in pursuit of a new, "softer" kind of news. For example, a much greater importance would be placed on personalities, often from the world of entertainment.

      Indeed, by 2001 the shift in emphasis away from the more traditional definitions of news was so pronounced that a media columnist for the New York Times was moved to report: "The days of the newsweekly magazines acting as hard news arbiters may have finally ground to a halt." In all fairness, however, it must be said that the publications have been able to maintain both their large circulations and enviable margins of profitability. "We have to recognize," wrote Time, Inc.'s editor in chief Norman Pearlstine, "how our company has evolved from the era when we published a handful of very influential magazines to the present era, when we are ... part of the world's largest and most important media company."

      It is hard to dispute the fact that the central journalistic mission of Time magazine, now entering its ninth decade of existence, has changed, by some measures, not necessarily for the better. But it also clear that the changes have come in response to real challenges -- challenges arising both from within the publishing industry and from larger societal shifts in interest, tastes and informational needs. And in this respect, it might be noted that, as an volving journalistic form, Time continues to provide us with a unique reflection of the world in which it -- and we -- live.





Abrahamson, David, Magazine-Made America: The Cultural Transformation of the Postwar Periodical, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1996.

      Baughman, James L., Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media, Boston: G.K. Hall/Twayne, 1987.

      Elson, Robert T., The World of Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Changing Enterprise, 1923-1941 and 1941-1960, 2 vols, New York: Atheneum, 1986.

      Kobler, John, Luce: His Time, Life and Fortune, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.

      Pendergast, Curtis and Colvin, Geoffrey, The World of Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Changing Enterprise, 1960-1980, vol 3, New York: Atheneum, 1986.

      Peterson, Theodore, Magazines in the Twentieth Century, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964.