In 1929, Time, Inc., publisher Henry R. Luce announced the spawning of a new business magazine with the elevated notion that it would "reflect industrial life as faithfully in ink and paper and word and picture as the finest skyscraper reflects it in stone and steel and architecture."
It would be called Fortune, Luce decided, a name appropriate to the heady bull-market atmosphere in which the magazine was conceived.
But it was February 1930 before the first issue appeared. The stock market had just crashed, the country was fast slipping into the greatest depression in its history, and it seemed anything but appropriate to launch a new plushly produced and expensive (the cover price of $1 an issue was equivalent then to a skilled workers' hourly wage) magazine proclaiming the virtues, achievements and rewards of a capitalist free enterprise system that appeared to be crumbling.
Despite this classic accident of poor timing, Luce persisted and the magazine survived the depression, its own romance with business tempered in the crucible of the periods' economic hard times with a healthy skepticism.
After 47 years and a number of transformations and size shrinkages later, Fortune remains close to Luce's original concept: a well written, thoughtfully reported, graphically handsome and meticulously edited magazine catering to the interests of the big business executive.
Its specialty has been the long, in-depth and often critical look at the ups and downs of corporations and the economic, financial and governmental environment in which they operate. The magazine also continues to extoll the achievements and the good life of the top executive.
Now Fortune has embarked on perhaps the biggest change in its history with a plan to switch its format at the beginning of next year from a monthly to a biweekly, appearing 26 times a year instead of 12.
Several reasons are given for the switch, which long has been under consideration: to create the greater immediacy and timeliness in Fortune's coverage which a monthly format has precluded, to make it easier for a reader to get through, and to improve a profitability of the magazine.
For a month now, a slimmed-down pilot issue of the new biweekly Fortune has been circulating in publishing and advertising circles.
The magazine's top executives have embarked on a national and international road show to whip up enthusiasm with advertisers for the new format and to try to reassure them that the new magazine will retain the prestige and substance of the old Fortune while being easier to handle and read. And a characteristically thorough Time, Inc., promotional blitz is also in gear.
While Fortune consistently has been profitable and, according to publisher Clifford Grum, is in the midst of its most profitable year ever (he won't divulge the figures), the publication has trailed its main competitors in the lucrative business magazine field - Business Week and Forbes - in both circulation and advertising growth in recent years.
Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation for the first six months of 1977 show Business Week with 768,187 subscribers, no change over the year before Forbes with 668,406 subscribers, up 3.3 per cent, and Fortune with 627,548 subscribers, a gain of 1 per cent.
Business Week has increased its subcriptions by about 60 per cent over the last decade and Forbes has doubled its list since 1970, but Fortune has shown a much pokier rate of growth.
As for advertising, figures from the Publishers Information Bureau show that Business Week garnered $67.4 million in ad revenues last year, a gain of 27 per cent over 1975, Forbes was up 31 per cent to $19.5 million, and Fortune gained 22 per cent to $26.7 million.
For the first six months of this year, moreover, Business Week has increased its advertising revenues 23 per cent of the period over a year ago and Forbes is up 28 per cent, while Fortune has gained only 13 per cent.
The shift to a biweekly format also should heighten direct editorial competition among Fortune, Business Week and Forbes, which up to now have occupied largely separate niches because they appear at different intervals and present business news in different quite ways.
Business Week, published by McGraw-Hill, Inc., is essentially a weekly business news magazine, well regarded by business managers as a source of the latest business and economic developments.
Forbes, under the continuing stewardship of flamboyant capitalist philosopher Malcom S. Forbes, is a biweekly largely catering to the investment-minded with its short, tip-sheet assessments of corporations and regular columns on general investment market topics. It now appears 24 times a year but will switch to 26 issues in response to Fortune's move.
"Fortune is not going to leave its restaurant; we're just going to enlarge its menu," says publisher Grum. "In the magazine field, readers and advertisers know what to expect from Fortune, Business Week and Forbes. And we don't intend to go into their fields. We'll stay in our field, which is indepth judgement and perception of the news."
The differences among the magazines are bound to shrink. "I don't think they'll be competitive as a news magazine, but I think they'll be tougher competition as a biweekly than as a montly, commented Business Week editor-in-chief Lewis H. Young. Young says he has asked higher-ups for an increase in his magazine staff "so we can be more competitive."
He experts the challenge from Fortune to come in "economic reporting and corporate profile reporting," areas in which Business Week also excels. "If I were them, I'd build on their current strengths," he added.
James N. Michaels, the editor of Forbes, sees the competition among the magazines as one primarily for the available time of "a rather small group of busy people. To the extent businessmen read Forbes thoroughly, they read others less and vice versa."
"I think readers want information faster," said Michaels. "You can't come along six months later and evaluate something that you think is news. You want the evaluation and judgments as close to the news as can be made. The format change at Fortune may reflect the simple acceptance of that fact. People have so many distractions and claims on their time that they don't want to read 6,000- or 7,000-word articles. We have always recognized the need to stay close to the news and get our readers in and out fast, and I think our competitors are recognizing that."
Michaels' analysis may be close to the mark. Fortune's lengthy, synoptic articles may take as much as six months to complete from conception through researching, reporting, writing and editing in the current format. This means the articles often lack immediacy because the magazine can't risk being overtaken by events.
"We really couldn't do real articles about moving targets," commented Fortune associate managing editor Daniel Seligman.
In addition, there is the suspicion that Fortune articles, although highly praised and admired for their thoroughness, often may attract few readers because of their forbidding length.
'One of the few criticisms I hear about the magazine,' said publisher Grum, is from businessmen who say, "I love your magazine but where do I get 3 1/2 hours to read it?' The new magazine, he said, is designed so that most readers can get through it in 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
"I think we had a good thing going, but essentially for a restricted market," commented Fortune managing editor Robert Lubar. "Reading the magazine was a lot of work. For those who wanted to do it, it was very rewarding. But you've got to consider that there are fewer people who want to do this than who want to get Fortune in a more accessible form. We therefore faced the need for enough change to make the magazine more enticing without destroying its essential character."
The solution, as presented in the pilot issue, is a totally redesigned magazine that nevertheless still contains in 130 pages the same number of articles and features as in the unwieldy 300-plus-page October issue of Fortune now on the stands, though, understandably, with less than half as much advertising.
The difference is that in the pilot issue only 2 of the 10 articles are of the traditional Fortune length. The rest run closer to 1,500 to 2,000 words, such as a piece on the aging product lines at American Homes Products, one of the country's most profitable proprietary drug companies, or an article detailing how poorly Bert Lance ran the National Bank of Georgia when he was the chief executive there.
The latter article is held up as an example of the kind of piece, on a breaking story, that Fortune has been unable to do in the past. But even here, the article in the pilot was overtaken by events: Lance resigned as Budget Director just as the pilot appeared.
In the future, the editors say Fortune in many articles will be content to look at one aspect of a company's business, rather than to redigest the whole corporate story, because the magazine now will be able to return to a subject a few months later if developments warrant.
Instead of the approximately 100 long-length articles Fortune now carries annually, the 26-issue format will contain about 75 extensive articles and the rest of the shorter variety. Overall editorial content will increase by 30 per cent.
Regular features such as Businessmen in the News and Personal Investing are retained, and a feature called Dialogue has been added, which will appear occasionally and let businessmen with opposing or controversial viewpoints on an issue of public importance speak out.
Fortune's editorial staff, which has enjoyed the luxury of long lead times for writing and the backup of an exemplary research staff, initially resisted the change to the biweekly format. But their opposition waned when a mockup of the appealing new format was produced last spring, indicating the substance of the magazine would not be diluted, and when management agreed to about a 30 per cent increase in staff and editorial budget to take care of the increased demands that a biweekly will make.
Fortune is adding about 10 writers and 10 researchers, as well as increasing its production staff, and will for the first time locate writers on a permanent basis in Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles. The Washington office for Fortune also will be expanded.
Because the aim of a pilot issue is primarily to show advertisers what a revised magazine will look like, content does not really reveal what substantive changes a more frequent Fortune will bring.
"In a way, we're trying not be that different," said Lubar. "It's an intangible thing. The frequency plus the need to have more stories is going to change the stories somewhat."
Already the new format has drawn praise for its attractiveness and readability from both competitors such as Michaels of Forbes and from advertising agency representatives.
"I think it's going to be accepted readily if they stick to in-depth reporting but keep it shorter," said Louis J. Crossin, vice president with Doremus & Co., one of the major firms for placing business advertising. "Advertisers are waiting with baited breath," said Crossin, noting that in the new format ads don't crowd each other as much as they now do in Fortune.
It remains to be seen whether the biweekly Fortune will reslice the overall business advertising pie or expand it.
However, the increased frequency and vitality of Fortune - which has always set high standards of business journalism - should add new competitive excitement to business and economic reporting which more and more has been pushed into center stage by events.