Why I Founded 'Newsweek'

Thomas John Cardell Martyn founded "Newsweek" in 1933. Anne Alexander

This is extracted from Thomas J.C. Martyn's memoir, Inside the Founding of Newsweek: How a Hot-Tempered, One-Legged R.A.F. Pilot Launched an American Media Giant, which is available at bookstores.

Most people want to know: When did you first think of Newsweek? What made you think of it? Did you intend it to be a magazine like Time? What was your policy? Why did you call it Newsweek? And so on.

To be meticulously precise, I did not begin to think of my journalistic venture as Newsweek per se until the latter part of 1932, when I coined the name exactly as it is today, that is without a hyphen.

At the time I came up with the name, there was considerable argument about it. We had fixed on the dummy name of Tribune for the purposes of the prospectus and some of my colleagues were in favor of that name over Newsweek. The majority of them thought that Newsweek as a single word would not be understood by the public. Since I insisted on the name, I had to give way on the hyphen and thus it became registered as News-Week.

It was always my intention to consolidate it into a single word whenever we thought the public—our public—would approve. Malcolm Muir, who became my administrative successor under Vincent Astor and Averell Harriman, apologized to me for having dropped the hyphen, but I reassured him by saying that I had intended eventually to drop it myself.

Abstractly, I thought about the idea of Newsweek many years before, while I was working for Time Inc. as its first foreign editor. One of the operations that fascinated me was the way Roy Larson, then the magazine's circulation manager, secured subscriptions. Although my interest at the time was purely academic, I went into the cycle of procedures with infinite pains, studying each detail, and finished up with a great respect for Roy as well as a comprehensive appreciation of his work.

And I suppose that subconsciously my interest in Time's circulation methods must have been the starting point of my subsequent plans for a second news magazine. This was certainly putting the cart before the horse because concretely I had not thought about such a venture.

A chance remark of Briton Hadden's somewhat later on may have galvanized my latent thinking about it. Brit said to me in substance: "A man's a fool not to borrow every cent he can lay his hands on while he is young. He has his whole life to pay it back. But he'd better be right." Hadden, the genius of Time, and his partner [Henry] Luce had done precisely that, raising an initial $87,000 with which to start the publication of Time.

It was not until Time moved back to New York from its temporary sojourn in Cleveland while I was on the staff of The New York Times that I first began to think definitely about another news magazine. I talked to Briton Hadden about it, particularly stressing the inevitability of competition. He took some convincing, but he finally agreed with me, as he did with my contention that Time should be proud if one of the first Timers actually did the founding of it.

A 2004 edition of "Newsweek" magazine is displayed at a newspaper stall in Islamabad November 27, 2004. Faisal Mahmood MK/Reuters

Luce, on the other hand, whose vision was in inverse ratio to his ambition, subsequently took a very different attitude, accusing me of trying to put Time out of business. Looking backward over more than a third of a century, such an accusation appears ridiculous and was probably meant to ridicule me, but it would have been entirely in character for Luce to have been uneasy over the advent of Newsweek. Since it was not in my own interest even to have thought of putting Time out of business, which I certainly did not do, I took the charge as being an attempt to belittle me, in which it did not succeed.

While I never had any idea in mind, in my talks with Briton Hadden, that Time would take a direct or indirect interest in my projected plan for a second news magazine—I suppose it is better to call it a dream in those days—I undoubtedly was hoping for some sort of blessing and perhaps even passive cooperation. I got just the opposite. I have often wondered what would have happened had Briton Hadden lived. That is, of course, just another dream without any significance whatever.

It may be said that the success of Time, to which I had modestly contributed my iota, the abundance of news material, the availability of excellent news services, the infinity of possible interpretations of news and attitudes to it, as well as the very large number of profitably competing newspapers, were elements that subconsciously and progressively influenced my decision to start Newsweek.

A contributing factor and perhaps a decisive one occurred while I was on The New York Times. I had suggested to Lester Marvell that the Sunday Times print a summary of the past week's news in the form of a separate supplement. The idea of a synopsis took hold. For some reason or other Marvell did not adopt the idea of a New York Times news magazine. It was then that I said to myself that someone is going to do it one day.

As to the title of the proposed newsmagazine, my first choice was the single word NEWS. It was short, expressive and apposite, much more so than Time. My collaborators and counselors were by no means unanimous. The hebdomadal implication was of course absent. The debate was cut short by the entrance of a legal doubt: the name was protected in the context of the Daily News. I argued that it was doubtless protected by a hundred other newspapers using the word news in their mastheads.

Cautious counsel agreed, but pointed out that our capital would be for the publication of a newsmagazine and not to defend lawsuits. There was not any argument about that. And since the idea of the news magazine was to cover the events of the previous seven days, the juxtaposition of NEWS plus WEEK logically gave me the name Newsweek.

When I got down to the actual business of working out the format of Newsweek, I gave a lot of thought to making it a pocket-size periodical. The decisive arguments against it came from the advertising people and were of a technical character: Advertising run in Time could not be run in a pocket magazine without additional expense to the advertisers; Difficulties of setting up a rate structure that would make sense; Lack of display facilities, etc.

Eventually I gave up the idea, although to this day, especially in view of what the Reader's Digest has accomplished, I am not sure that I was right in doing so. And so it happened that Newsweek became the same size as Time and for much the same reasons that the Times had become the same size as the Literary Digest.

In considering a second news magazine, the question of the format was governed by the size and departmentalization was implicit in the concept—any concept—of a news magazine. But whereas Time was rigidly departmentalized, each department having a more or less fixed position, it was intended that Newsweek would be departmentalized more fluidly on a news importance basis.

It did not seem to me to be necessary to go to extreme measures or to invent new means of presenting the news merely to make a superficial difference between the two news magazines. Newspapers are mostly much of a size and achieve physical differences through the use of type and editorial differences through the pursuit of different policies. And so it would be with two news magazines.

In synthesis, a news magazine is a weekly newspaper in a more convenient size. Historically, there was nothing new then, nor is there now, in a weekly news report other than its format and application to modern requirements. There were weekly newspapers before the advent of Time, just as there are many news magazines after it. There is nothing exclusive or original in a weekly newspaper any more than there is in a daily, weekly or monthly news magazine.

I expected Newsweek to be different in character than Time. I planned it that way. And I was not disappointed. I expected it to be much more accurate and even here I was not entirely disappointed. Although my ideas and aspirations were never to be fully realized, I was to become conscious that they were working for us in the steady progress we were to make. And my judgment was to be amply confirmed by our circulation record and what our circulation analysis revealed. We were to build up a solid Newsweek public.

In the early days, I based my reasoning on the realities of newspaper competition. If there was room for several newspapers in almost any big city in the United States, all dealing with the same commodity (news), and literally thousands throughout the world, it did not require much imagination to visualize the profitable existence of two news magazines in the United States.

Moreover, it seemed to me that competition in the business of weekly news presentation would expand the market for news magazines, which has been the case. It was just as obvious then as it is today, with the benefits of hindsight. I believe that Newsweek has played its part in Time's stupendous success, and vice versa.

Briton Hadden died of a streptococcus infection in 1929. It is sad to think that if penicillin had been discovered at that time, he might have lived to enjoy the fruits of his labors and his remarkable aptitudes.

It was only late in the following year that I began to think actively and more or less continuously about the publication of another news magazine. I was fortunate in discovering that Winston Starling Childs Jr., who had married a first cousin of my wife, was every bit as much interested and just as enthusiastic as I was in and about my plans. We met frequently to discuss the project and I received very considerable encouragement from him. So much so, over the years ahead, that Winky, as his many friends affectionately knew him, is certainly to be regarded as the Uncle of Newsweek.

Aside from the money he personally invested and the far greater sums he directly and indirectly influenced, he was indefatigable in his efforts to assist me, sometimes with good ideas of his own and always ready to do anything within his powers when asked, even to the point of personal inconvenience.

He got every single member of his immediate family to subscribe to the stock of the new magazine, gave me introductions to some of his Yale classmates and induced his father to do likewise. When in later years successive increases in capital were required, Wink and his family were ever prompt in taking up their agreed allotment, and on occasion the allotments of others, the defaulters. No man ever had a more faithful friend.

My conversations with Winky and many others continued sporadically throughout 1931 and it was only in the following year that the die was cast. Up to this time, I had had to proceed cautiously and carefully on my own time, which meant in the evenings and during weekends.

Thomas John Cardell Martyn pictured with his granddaughter Anne in his later years. Anne Alexander

There were a great many more factors to be considered and decided than I had previously imagined. The most obvious of these: Who were to be the editor, the business, circulation and advertising managers? In other words how and where was I to find the indispensable key personnel?

Although jobs were scarce in those days, it was not an easy task for me. I did not have a wide circle of friends I could call on to help me. I had not been to school or college in the United States and therefore did not have a pool of classmates whom I could consult. I had in fact only been in the United States for nine years and many of my friends were to be counted on the staff of Time and, while some of them were willing to help with advice which I did not solicit, there was no thought or possibility of any of them joining my venture.

The taboo was established on morale as well as practical considerations. Despite all this handicap, the actual business of getting a staff together proved far less formidable than I had imagined. The cooperation, some of it from unexpected quarters, was total.

And there was the primary question of money. How much? Where from? How? The prospect of raising the large amount of initial capital required appeared at the time nothing short of forbidding to all concerned, except myself. I guess just blind faith in what I was doing carried me through to eventual success. Even in this respect, reality was to prove far easier than the prospect, for reasons I shall go into later on.

A host of other problems would follow or precede the financial considerations, such as the definition of policy in its final terms, the actualization of the format, the choice of the printer and his location, who was to supply the paper, calculation of the results we expected over the first two years to a projected break-even point and a great many others to which exact answers and best estimates had to be found before the prospectus could be written.

Overshadowing all these cerebrations was the supreme psychological doubt posed by the times. This was the year of presidential elections less than three years after the great Stock Market crash of 1929. The Dow Jones averages were at or close to their nadir, Franklin D. Roosevelt was addressing his fellow citizens and friends throughout the land preaching a New Deal. It was the year of the Albert H. Wiggin scandal and the resultant wave of distrust in even the strongest banking institutions. People were frightened. Many were on the verge of starvation, if not actually starving.

On the face of the situation, it looked about the most inauspicious time to start a new enterprise, and for the majority of new ventures it undoubtedly was. My own thoughts were that the very gravity of the economic situation favored the foundation of a new journalistic undertaking.

It seemed to me, and I suppose in retrospect it must have appeared to most thinking people, that the United States would have to undergo some heroic operation if the country were to be put on its feet again. No sane person could doubt that it would be saved, though it is easy to say so now, but how the salvation was to be affected was one of the most disputatious questions of the day. My theory was that the very measures that would have to be taken would affect the lives of individual citizens as they had not been affected since the Civil War, and perhaps more momentously, for better or for worse, and certainly with equal intimacy.

I figured a priori that the volume of news and its impact upon the public would increase and with it the demand for coherent news analysis. I was of course making a prima facie case for the launching in the midst of chaos of a new news magazine.

I could not proceed on the basis of my own opinions, no matter how much I believed in them. To make additionally certain that I was not doing some highly speculative wishful thinking, I went to great pains to sound out the opinions and obtain the advice of a relatively considerable number of people whose views I could trust. Among these were several bankers, industrialists, brokers, lawyers and a fair selection of executive businessmen. In addition to this, we circularized 1,000 businessmen in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, as well as directors of large corporations, automobile executives, doctors, ministers and educators.

The response was encouraging. Twenty-one percent answered, a very high return, and of these, 54 percent were in favor of the type of news magazine we were advocating. Although they were not asked if they judged the time auspicious to start a new magazine, the implication was that they did.

I do not now have the feeling that I got a majority opinion either pro or con. If there was a majority opinion then it was from people who admitted they had none. The people who were against the project per se were the most vehement in their denunciation of it.

Some thought I was just plain crazy to think about it and told me bluntly that they would not think of investing in it at such a time and did not think anyone else would. Still others advised me to wait for the results of the forthcoming elections. I was able to persuade some of them that the times were in our favor, only to have them come up with a lot of other conditions they thought mattered still more. A few of them, and very important people among them, agreed fully with me. There was not any consensus.

In the end I decided to go ahead on the theory that if I could raise the funds, that in itself would be my best vindication.

This is extracted from Thomas J.C. Martyn's memoir, Inside the Founding of Newsweek: How a Hot-Tempered, One-Legged R.A.F. Pilot Launched an American Media Giant, which is available at bookstores. More information can be found at http://www.insidethefoundingofnewsweek.com. The book won the Bronze Medal in the biography memoir category in this year's Axiom Business Book Awards.