Print / View Finding Aid as Single Page

New-York Historical Society logo

Guide to the Time Inc. Life Publishing and Business Records
1936-2001
 MS 3009-RG 26

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Samantha Brown and Holly Deakyne

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on March 09, 2021
Description is in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical Note

For the majority of Time Inc.'s existence, the company maintained a strict separation of editorial from the publishing and business side of each magazine, colloquially called the separation of "church" (editorial) and "state" (publishing). Publishing and Business Management includes the publisher, general manager, business manager, advertising sales, marketing services, letters, circulation, and public relations. The editorial side reported up to the editor-in-chief and the publishing/business side reported up to the corporate business executive who was the president prior to 1960 and the chief executive officer after that. Henry Luce structured Time Inc. this way so that the business side could not (in theory) influence the editorial content of the publications. For example, the advertising sales people could not interfere with a magazine's decision to run an article on the dangers of cigarette smoking, even though it might mean losing millions of dollars in tobacco ads.

In February 1936, Luce came up with the idea of creating a picture magazine. Luce proposed his new magazine concept to Time Inc. executives. At first, the group thought that Luce wanted to increase the number of pictures include in Time or that he wanted to add a supplement to the magazine but Luce was adamant that he wanted to create a magazine focused on photo journalism. While the executives were suspicious, Luce knew the idea could work. Luce's faith in the concept came from his experience with  Fortune.  Fortune, itself, was almost a photo journalism magazine and had been innovative in its use of photography. If these advances could be combined with  Time's editorial content,  Life could be a success.

After doing some initial research and testing, Time Inc. published the first issue of Life on November 23, 1936. In the original proposal to the board, the magazine would be the same size as the  Illustrated London News and printed on shiny paper with around 200 high-quality photographs recording significant current news events including detailed captions. By presenting the images in this fashion, Luce hoped that the reader would be able to both enjoy what they were seeing but also be able to study the images to gain a logical understanding of what was happening in the world around them.

At the magazine's launch, it would cost 10 cents per issue, or $3 per year for a subscription. Based on the price of the magazine, they decided to name it Dime, The Show-Book of the World but quickly decided to change its name. According to Elson, staff and charter subscribers were asked to submit other names, and the title  Life was suggested by both cofounder Henry Luce's wife Clare Luce and Time Inc. president James Linen's father. Since the name was already in use by another publication, Luce purchased it in order to acquire the rights.

The first staff members in 1936 were Luce as managing editor, John Martin as Luce's alternate and proposed sucessor as Life's managing editor, Daniel Longwell as picture editor, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Peter Stackpole as staff photographers, and Mary Fraser as copy chief. Despite a strong staff and a good concept, the magazine's financial outlook was ambiguous. Based on their pre-launch research, they knew that circulating the magazine wouldn't be a problem since most readers were attracted by the pictures and wanted to purchase the magazine to find out more. The real problem was figuring out how to turn a profit.

If Life followed the example of magazines like  Time and  Fortune then the way to make a profit would to be to rely on magazine subscriptions to cover the costs of printing and publication. Because of the high cost for making  Life, doing this would make the magazine too expensive for the average reader. Instead of relying on subscriptions,  Life would rely on advertising to bring in the needed revenue. With this idea in mind, the money made from the magazine's circulation would be used to cover the cost of printing the magazine but advertising revenue would cover everything else.

During Life's run, it was one of Time Inc.'s most successful ventures in terms of subscriptions and reader response but struggled with production and financing. Even though  Life was popular, Time Inc. could not financially sustain production of  Life and suspended its production as a weekly magazine in December 1972. Almost as soon as production was suspended, Time Inc. began planning  Life's revival. The Magazine Development department published the first  Life special in 1973 as a newsstand magazine followed by nine more. Time Inc. revived  Life as a monthly in 1978. In 2000, publication was again suspended, but revived in 2004 as a newspaper supplement. In 2007, Time Inc. completely ceased printing of  Life and created a website for images from the collection.

Citations:

Elson, Robert T. 1968. Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise, 1923-1941. New York: Atheneum.

Hooper, Bill. Email to Holly Deakyne, 10 June 2016.

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

Time To Stop Publishing Life Magazine, Will Keep It Online. U.S. News. CNBC, 26 March 2007. https://www.cnbc.com/id/17797635.