The first issue of Time magazine rolled off the presses on March 3, 1923, under the watchful eye of Time Inc.’s 23-year-old co-owner Henry Luce. For the rest of the 20th century, Luce’s company would be an indomitable force in media and culture, with a catalog of more than 100 print magazine titles including Life, People, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated.
Crippled by an ill-conceived 2001 merger with AOL and slow to adapt to the digital age, the company’s operating income plummeted from $627 million in 1999 to just $2 million in 2016, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. Time Inc. was sold in November for $2.8 billion to Meredith Corp., a Des Moines, Iowa-based media company that is focused on lifestyle brands, and which plans to sell Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Money. The deadline for the first round of bids passed earlier this month.
Time’s journalism in its golden era was legendary—and so was its spending. The company employed a famously generous expenses policy, covering travel, entertainment, and other perks. The largesse is eyebrow-raising in any context. Compared to the considerably more, uh, austere media landscape today, it’s obscene. “It seemed as if no one was paying attention to the money that was going out, because there was so much coming in,” Dan Okrent, who worked as an editor at Life and Time, told the New York Times in a recently published oral history of the company, as told by dozens of the well-known editors, reporters, and researchers who used to work there.
Indeed, ex-employees’ anecdotes of decades of Time Inc.’s wild spending could be their own genre of journalism, with tons of examples over the years appearing in a variety of news outlets. We’ve compiled a sampling here.
On closing nights, which for Life back then was Saturday, first a cart would go by with wine and liquor, mixed drinks. Then that was followed by a French meal, from a French restaurant directly across the street. They would load up these special carts, with receptacles for the food, to keep it warm, and they would come by and feed you. This was a closing night ritual, first the drink cart and then the food.
—Dick Stolley, editor, Life, People (in The Daily Beast)
By the time I arrived, the so-called bar cart was a copy boy who would come around on Tuesdays and give each senior editor two bottles of liquor and a couple bottles of wine for that week’s closing nights.
—Jim Kelly, editor, Time (in The New York Times)
If a writer who lived, say, in suburban Connecticut, stayed late writing his article that week, he could stay in town at a hotel of his choice.
—John Podheretz, reporter/researcher, Time (in Commentary)
When [Time’s] editor-in-chief, the late Henry Grunwald, went to visit the facilities of a new publication called TV Cable Week that was based in White Plains, a 40 minute drive from the Time Life Building, he arrived by helicopter—and when he grew bored by the tour, he said to his aide, “Get me my helicopter.”
—John Podheretz (in Commentary)
Back in [the early 1980s], Time Inc. would let you just turn in the little tab at the bottom of a restaurant bill, the area that was perforated and you could tear off. You could write in any amount, and they’d accept it. When the company finally cracked down on that, this writer friend from Time told me he had to take his daughter out of private school and send her to the local high school.
—Brian O’Reilly, writer and editor, Fortune (in The Daily Beast)
The mid-1990s was this rollicking time. Almost everyone got a very nice office with a nice big TV and a nice couch that you could nap on. And there was smoky glass so that no one really knew if you were awake or asleep.
—Adam Cohen, writer, Time (in the New York Times)
The legendary drink carts were gone, but we took a livery car home every night if we wanted and we had unlimited expense accounts. And I mean unlimited: I remember turning in monthly T&E’s exceeding $25,000, and one editor supposedly ran up $880,000 in expenses in a single year.
—Karl Taro Greenfeld, writer, Time (in the Los Angeles Times)
We even spent $5 million one year taking the entire staff to Hawaii.
—Joe Nocera, editor, Fortune (in Bloomberg)
In March 2001, Fortune took us all, both the business side and the editorial side, to Hawaii for a week.
—Bethany McLean, reporter and editor, Fortune (in the New York Times)
We were making so much money that when I was managing editor I took the entire staff of People to Key Largo for a four-day retreat.
—Jim Gaines, editor, People, Life, Time (in the New York Times)
More money, more problems
When I turned in an expense account covering my first month with a $32 charge on it for two books I’d bought for research purposes, my boss closed her office door and told me never to submit a report asking for less than $300 back, because it would make everybody else look bad.
—John Podheretz (in Commentary)
We were hiding money. Seriously. We were hiding money so that our targets from one year to the next would not increase that much.
—Jim Gaines (in the New York Times)
I got a call from the number two at the time. I go into his office, and he said, “I want to talk to you about your expense report.” I was like a Boy Scout, only spending what I had to. And he said, “Peter you’re not spending enough.” I said, “But I’m going out five nights a week!” He said, “Well, go out more! Stay out longer!”
—Peter Castro, editor, People (in the New York Times)