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May 22, 2006

Saving Time

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I see that Time magazine has a new hand on its helm. Richard Stengel has been appointed Managing Editor, the new top-dog position.

For all I know, Stengel is the perfect man for the job and that within a few years every issue will be packed with ad pages commensurate with its fat circulation figures.

But I'm doubtful.

Back in the 1950s teenager me eagerly awaited the mailman to arrive on Thursday, the ETA for Time to get from the Chicago printing plant to Seattle, way out on a remote corner of the country. When it arrived, I'd plow through it before other family members could get to it. And having finished, I had the satisfaction of feeling plugged into the news as interpreted by the sophisticated geniuses inhabiting New York City, nexus of information.

Yes, it was a hix-in-the-stix taking cues from the Giant Metropolis thing. I somehow felt more "in the know" than the Seattle folks who relied only on broadcast media and local newspapers for news. Now, I'm sure Harry Luce's PR guys would never have put it quite so bluntly when away from their favorite Radio City area watering hole, but I think aspirational, middle-brow people in the provinces were an important target for Time.

You really need to understand that media based in New York (especially), Chicago, Los Angeles and perhaps Washington, D.C. had immense prestige in the 1950s and early 60s compared to media based elsewhere. Go back another 20 or 30 years and LA didn't count much if entertainment was set aside while Washington's prestige was largely as a dateline location. Today the news/culture scene in the United States is far more dispersed. Important blogs, to take the most extreme example, are based in such (formerly) unlikely places as the Minneapolis area and Knoxville, Tennessee.

I essentially stopped reading Time by the early 1980s. Even given cheap subscription rates, I simply wasn't getting enough value to make it cost- and time-effective. Worse from Time's standpoint, I find it hard to imagine any circumstance that would have me regularly reading it in the future. And I doubt that I'm alone, notwithstanding those high circulation numbers.

These admittedly personal observations lead me to suspect that Time is doomed no matter what Stengel tries in his rejuvenation effort.

For what it's worth, if I were in Stengel's shoes (and without benefit of focus group and other marketing research data he has available) I'd be inclined to go back to Time's roots as a news summary for people who are too busy to pay much attention to events on a daily basis. I would greatly increase the ratio of word-space to photo-space. I would eliminate feature articles -- even the cover story. Facts would be salient and opinion segregated to sections where opposing views would be presented, along with short rebuttals. Given the tendency for news media to ignore inconvenient (from their perspective) information, I'd include short facts-rebuttal sections in the news hole.

Circulation would surely fall, probably to nicely under one million. But the remaining readers would likely be more devoted than today's readership, a potential plus for advertisers who can look beyond CPM data.

I think it would be a better magazine. But would this work? Probably not well enough to satisfy the bean-counters.

Did I just say "doomed?"

What would you do if you ruled Time?



posted by Donald at May 22, 2006


I'm probably typical of the average college graduate who seeks his news from the internet. Today, I was waiting at a carwash and they were shorthanded. Bored, I browsed through the stack of magazines. There were the usual weekly news mags. Just glancing through them, I realized there was really nothing there to interest me and I turned and watched the car wash machine for 15 minutes rather than read the treacle coming from NYC, et al.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 22, 2006 8:09 PM

If it's any comfort, I also read Time the same way you did, except a bit further south in Portland, OR, and also dropped off the list in the eighties and also would respond to the changes you recommend. But it appears we have a lot of sociological overlap, so that might not be useful information.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 22, 2006 10:59 PM

It's hard to see what point weekly newsmagazines still have in today's world. Time might do much better if it changes into a sort of opinion magazine, offering balanced opinions on major stories - after all, while there are plenty of outlets for opinions, hardly any are balanced.

Posted by: Peter on May 22, 2006 11:36 PM

I'd like to amend what I wrote above. Actually, if I were the owner of Time Magazine, I'd call a meeting of the entire staff, pass around cups of Kool-Aid with some of that Jim Jones elixir in it, and after a few words of furious vitriol hurled at the internet, close my eyes and go beddy-bye for good.

Hey, I can fantasize, can't I?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 23, 2006 9:18 AM

If I were in charge of Time — that is, if I owned a controlling interest in the damned thing, because even an editor-in-chief is just a hired hand — I'd sweep the board clean and start all over.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, the magazine discarded the concept of being a sort of slick newspaper that would review the week's events. The world was moving too fast, analysis now came wrapped up in the same package as the news. So it re-invented itself as a television show on paper: easily digestible news bites, trends, personalities, lifestyle stories, etc.

That formula, too, isn't working (if it ever did, for anyone). The dead-tree media can't imitate TV and come out on top, and a handful of columnists, even if they write well, don't command the attention they did with so much competition from the Web.

So I would issue a shocking order: turn Time in the direction of substance. Take one news story a week and go to town with it. Synthesize all the reporting on the subject and dig deeper. Invite a group of analysts with genuinely diverse — even eccentric and "extreme" — viewpoints to comment.

And not just conventional newshounds, but other kinds of specialists: say, a psychologist, a historian, a research scientist, a policeman, anyone whose thoughts might be relevant. The writers would be different for each subject, not just the same old pundits week after week.

A recipe for mass popularity? Probably not. I'm not sure that any magazine above the level of Oprah or People can hold a mass market anymore. But it might be a recipe for survival, and it could even contribute something to the debased level of public dialogue.

Posted by: Rick Darby on May 23, 2006 9:30 AM

Sadly, I think that weekly newsmagazines are dead, and deservedly so. Your entry here reminded me that I haven’t bought an issue of Time or Newsweek in years, and never even thumb through an issue at my local news stand. And this is even though I regularly subscribed to both magazines from my high school years through several years after college.

There are still a few magazines that I read regularly, though they tend to be special focus (e.g., Skeptic, The Economist, New Scientist, and The New Yorker).

Oddly enough, I don’t even care much for online weekly magazines. The news cycle moves too fast. I think that monthly magazines can often offer information and judicious commentary, but newsweeklies exist in an uncomfortable twilight zone where they are forever trying to play catch-up with events, but inevitably losing to TV and more nimble daily papers.

More photos? Shorter articles? More facts-rebuttal? This sounds like making Time the equivalent of People Magazine with snarkier letters to the editor. And note that Life Magazine died because its photo-heavy, short article format simply looked old, tired and irrelevant compared to the immediacy of TV and the slickness of People, US and entertainment shows like Entertainment Tonight.

The Week already has the news summary business covered, as does US News and World Report (although I read the former but never the latter), so I don’t think that Time can really compete here anymore.

As an aside, even though some like it, the newly revamped TV Guide is facing a dilemma much like the challenges facing Time. It has become bigger, slicker, and yet offers fewer listings and reviews than before because people can more easily get TV show timelines and other information from other sources, including their cable providers or online. It’s no longer really a guide to TV, but a general entertainment weekly (like Entertainment Weekly or Premiere or Us, etc) with a half-assed primetime TV grid thrown in.

I think that the future belongs to whatever online newspapers can exploit traditional and new resources better. Online news may even eclipse TV. TV news is inherently shallow, and seems unable to shake its dependence on attractive anchors without journalistic experience and its addiction to sweeps-driven irrelevant but salacious drivel. On the other hand, the best online newspapers (BBC, The Times of London, and The New York Times) not only provide current information, but also often intelligently exploit their archives.

By the way, note that I am not defending the ideological narrowness of these newspapers or the New York Times fiasco with its stupid TimesSelect service, which restricts access to its columnists. But when a significant person like Jane Jacobs died, the Times not only published a lengthy obituary, but also made available online many past articles that had been written about her and provided links to non-Times web pages, so that an interested reader could get a sense of how she had been viewed over the course of her life and career. Similarly, a profile of a new book on Virginia Woolf was accompanied by links to every review of her novel, along with most biographies and major retrospectives that had appeared in the Times.

The BBC news site excels in providing links to past articles and background material. These sites are also getting smarter about including audio, video and graphics links, going far beyond photography.

Where they need to get smarter is in embracing a 24 hour news cycle. Some online newspapers still base the placing of news stories on the publication date of the physical newspaper. Worse, some newspapers like the LA Times will publish an arts review, especially music or theater reviews of short run productions, after the performance run has concluded, providing an “official record” of the performance, but useless to anyone who might have been interested in seeing the performance on the basis of the review.

So, for my money, every review of a concert or play should be available online hours after the first performance has concluded. Every movie review of a film opening on Friday should appear Thursday evening at the latest (with similar adjustments for movies opening on other days), and should include a space for reader comment. Smart promoters would also provide a cleaned-up audio or video clip from a performance or rehearsal that could be included within a review.

And (other shoe dropping), Apple or some other company should deliver some iPod equivalent portable device that can capture and store the content of online newspapers. Something you can read at the lunch counter. Or while on the toilet (sorry, but essential).

But obviously, if I want to be able to read about a concert review hours after the opening night performance, there is no way in hell that I would be willing to wait for the Time Magazine review a week and a half after the fact.

But perhaps this is part of the key to the future of Time Magazine. Ted Turner realized that the movie libraries that he had acquired had a potential greater value than the recently released movies regularly shown on broadcast TV, to which the networks had no long-term rights. Today, TV networks have seen the light with respect to the release of their old shows on DVD.

As a further aside, I note that The New Yorker is offering a DVD collection of every issue of the magazine published between February 1925 and February 2005 for $49 (down from an initial price of $100), one of the boldest and most interesting offers I have ever seen.

Similarly, it may be that the future of newspapers and magazines might lie not just in covering current events, but in intelligently exploiting archival and related information which they either own or have access to. This also allows them to better distinguish themselves from some blog sites, which can offer tons of opinion and commentary, but not as much archival or historical information (I note some of the content-embedded stuff here on 2blowhards as often worthy exceptions to the rule).

Another thing: Sometimes I find myself reading an intelligent letter to the editor on some story or opinion that I missed the first time around. I give props to those online newspapers which provide an intelligent hot link to the original story and related articles. This is obviously something you can’t easily get from the physical newspaper, even if you have back issues stashed in your den or garage. But again, the key here is not just covering news and events, but in providing useful ways of organizing and presenting information, chronologically and thematically.

Posted by: Alec on May 23, 2006 2:29 PM

If you go back and look at old issues of "Time"---there were more black and white pics, and smaller, more serious-looking print. Fewer graphics and pizazz. They also had much more brainy, cryptic headings under the photos---stuff like "Communism as swiss cheese"---something that you had to read the article to get. It made the whole magazine seem more serious, more like "news." I like it better. Now I can't tell the difference between "People" and "Time"---and I don't read either one.

Posted by: annette on May 24, 2006 10:49 AM

Scary days for the employees of news magazines! It's hard not to sympathize with editors given the job of keeping the franchises alive. How? The news itself is old news by the time a week has passed. Provocative opinions can be found all over the place these days. So: great angles? Snazzy production numbers? Just holding on for dear life? Like some of you guys I think the BBC is doing a heck of a job of being a substantial-old-media outfit that's making itself useful and appealing in a new-media universe.

Annette -- That's a smart catch. Someone in the media biz once told me that the newsmagazines used to run 30-50% more words than they currently do. I guess it's a much more image (and impact-) driven medium than it once was.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 24, 2006 11:54 AM

Beef up the feature articles. Try to make the magazine something that people are glad to have read, rather than something they want to take off the newsstand.

If I were the publisher for Time, I'd be very worried that my articles don't ever seem to get linked by bloggers. In other words, it's a general interest magazine that doesn't seem to interest anybody.

Posted by: Zach on May 29, 2006 10:52 PM

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