Background Information - Fortune Magazine in the 1930s

The first issue of Fortune magazine hit the stands in February of 1930, four months after the dramatic crash of 1929. That kind of timing may seem the result of an ironic, if not an unfortunate, business decision, but the release date of America's first real business journal was actually quite a savvy maneuver. It reflected the good intuition the magazine's founder, Henry R. Luce, would continue to demonstrate in the coming decade. At a time when other dealmakers were cowering, Luce built Fortune magazine into one cornerstone of a media empire.

The crash only piqued Wall Street's desire for a smart and stylish journal of entrpreneurial culture. Briton Hadden, Luce's partner and the man who had founded Time with him in 1923, thought that a magazine devoted to business would be boring and unmarketable. But Henry persisted, and Fortune's 184 bright, lavish pages debuted with 30,000 subscribers. Luce believed that most businessmen were stodgy, uncultured, and lacking a social conscience. The spate of trade periodicals available at the time attested to this. They were no more than facts and statistics printed in black and white, and the Wall Street Journal was hardly the comprehensive paper it is today. So Luce didn't hire MBAs or experienced economists to write his copy; he recruited young literary talent instead. Archibald MacLeish, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Alfred Kazin filled the pages of Fortune with flowing human interest articles that were brash, irreverent, and critical. Fortune's advertisements were colorful and lush, and the photography of Margaret Bourke-White provided stunning looks inside the factories and farms that fed the American economic machine. Fortune style was an upscale and intelligent upgrade of the older and more middle-class Time. The result was a product that matched Luce's vision of business itself, an activity he called "the distinctive expression of the American genius"1.

Henry wanted to bring entrepreneurs out of their back offices, give them an identity, and make them accountable to the public. In those first months after the crash, most people expected economic recovery. But when no recovery came and the decade wore on, Luce turned the attention of Fortune to a tempered brand of muckraking. It exposed the munitions industry without losing advertisers. It published pieces which alternately criticized both Hoover and Roosevelt. And though the tone of its columns had a socialist twinge, Fortune presented a disturbing picture of communist Russia in March of 1932 while praising Italian fascism in July of 1934. Fortune seemed to have a magical ability to be seen as both a challenge to business and a boon, to keep its integrity while throwing its hat into the political ring. This balance yielded consistent and respectable profits, and in 1937 the magazine netted close to half a million dollars with a circulation of 460,000. By decade's end Fortune had become required reading on Wall Street.

1 Kobler, pg. 85.

Kobler, John. Luce; his Time, Life, and Fortune. Doubleday: New York, 1968.

McKerns, Joseph P., ed. A Biographical Dictionary of American Journalism. Greenwood Press, Inc.: Westport, Connecticut, 1989.

Swanberg, W.A. Luce and his Empire. Scribner's: New York, 1972.

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