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The Greatest Assignment in Journalism

Fortune's first cover. Fortune's first cover.
Fortune's first cover. Margaret Bourke-White
The debut issue in February 1930 featured a cover illustration by art director T. M. Cleland.
Margaret Bourke-White

“Business is our life,” said Henry Luce in a speech he delivered in March 1929, just 11 months before launching Fortune magazine. “It is the life of the artist, the clergyman, the philosopher, the doctor, because it determines the condition and problems of life with which either artist or philosopher, let alone ordinary mortals, have to deal.”

Luce’s business partner Briton Hadden, with whom he had launched Time magazine six years earlier—and who would die from a blood infection at age 31, just weeks before Luce spoke the words above—was far less enamored of the idea of starting a business magazine, as Robert Elson relates in his compelling history of Time Inc. There were a few such publications out there already, and they hadn’t made much of a splash.

But Luce was convinced that the others had misunderstood the mission. His offering wouldn’t chase boorish tycoons for gossip, but would instead explore the wild terrain of free enterprise with fairness and daring and sophistication. Indeed, he thought, the task of covering this realm accurately and vividly would be “the greatest journalistic assignment in history.”

As it happened, that assignment was still in the planning stages when, in October 1929, the stock market collapsed, ushering in a lasting Wall Street panic and, ultimately, a devastating economic depression. Luce was undeterred: The Great Crash, he thought, made his proposed magazine more relevant to American lives, not less. And when the first issues of Fortune appeared in 1930—priced unabashedly at a buck apiece—they seemed to fulfill Luce’s promise: “The most notable fact about them,” said one observer, was their “daring.” When it came to business, Time Inc.’s (TIME) bold new magazine was quickly becoming America’s fearless storyteller.

Nearly nine decades later, I’m proud to say, it still is—a contention borne out in mid-March as my spectacularly talented colleagues won an astounding six top prizes from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

Related: Fortune Names a New Editor-in-Chief

And in this issue, we offer a deeply reported saga that speaks beautifully to this tradition as well: an investigation by veteran journalist Steven Brill into one company’s valiant, if quixotic, attempt to sell a piece of battlefield technology that actually works to a Pentagon interested only in one that doesn’t (read “Donald Trump, Palantir, and the Crazy Battle to Clean Up a Multibillion-Dollar Military Procurement Swamp” publishing online on March 27).

Brill’s feature may well be the most eye-opening story on the military-industrial complex I’ve ever seen. It also just happens to be a great read: the tale of an ex–Army commander who simply won’t quit—even when taking on the entire U.S. military bureaucracy, a host of powerful defense contractors, and at least half a century of clubhouse dealing.

Finally, while business itself may have changed dramatically from the time of Fortune’s first issue, the qualities necessary to report on it—honesty, accuracy, forthrightness, fearlessness, and ambition—have not. The 17 Fortune editors who have come before me carried that understanding in their hearts. And as the 18th editor to lead this great brand, I promise to do the same.

A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Greatest Assignment.”