Time marches on for grand old man of the news

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The Independent Online
IT BEGAN in 1923 as a bright idea launched by two Yale graduates in their twenties. Henry Luce and Briton Hadden created a 32-page news magazine - an entirely untried idea. The philosophy was clearly defined: everything should be "titillating or epic or super-curtly factual". As the confident prospectus declared, the aim of the magazine was to "cut through the clutter of information we're exposed to, and to try to make sense of the world".

Three-quarters of a century later, Time magazine has taken on an almost emblematic quality, representing the power and influence of the press world-wide. The Man of the Year slot and the cover stories have become an international reference point, a shorthand for fame. This week, some former cover subjects - including President Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Gates and Muhammad Ali - will be among those attending Time's 75th birthday celebrations at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Time is the accepted grand old man of news magazines everywhere.

Paradoxically, the Man of the Year slot was invented as a way of covering up the fact that the magazine had failed to put Charles Lindbergh on the cover when he made his pioneering flight in May 1927. Instead, Lindbergh was promoted to the cover story in a quiet week for news at the end of the year - the first ever Man of the Year.

The magazine - which, according to the original concept, was to be readable within an hour - remains predominantly American in its world view. But it sells almost a third of its 5.5 million copies outside the United States. In Britain alone, it sells almost as many copies as The Economist. Increasingly, it has become a global news magazine, with regional European and Asian editions edited in London and Hong Kong respectively.

For its critics, Time is dominated by the culture of the soundbite. It remains an editors', not a writers', paper. The editors in New York argued that they made the stories easier to read and understand; correspondents sometimes feel that New York has turned a story upside down. As Lance Morrow notes in this week's anniversary issue: "Sometimes correspondents in the field and editors in New York took exactly opposite views about whether a story had gone from bad to good or good to bad in the editorial alchemy."

For the enthusiasts, this is a key source of well-packaged information - in constant competition with Newsweek, the rival that was founded in 1933. Like Newsweek, Time plays a key role in a country where the national distribution of the heavyweight daily press - the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Los Angeles Times - remains patchy.

Time is now part of a media empire whose influence is so enormous that critics see damaging conflicts of interest. In some ways, these mirror the controversy in recent days over Rupert Murdoch's intervention to prevent publication of a book by Chris Patten that would be critical of China. The Time-Warner empire includes, alongside Time magazine, Warner Brothers movie studios, and CNN. In the circumstances, the possibilities for Time to talk frankly about problems at Warner Bros or at CNN are clearly limited.

But Time insists that it can remain independent in spirit. It insists, too, that the prospects remain good. The chairman of Time Inc, Don Logan, noted last June: "I don't know of anybody making money on the Internet." In the meantime, however, Time's own emphasis on online access has continued to grow. The magazine now advertises five separate online services. Time magazine is used to re-inventing its format. That will no doubt continue, even if the heart of the magazine remains the same.