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January 18, 2007

Time Running Out?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Wither Time magazine?

And Newsweek and U.S. News.

Last May I wrote a post titled Saving Time that used the hook of the magazine getting a new editor to mention why I used to like it and to offer some advice to the new hand on the helm.

Eight months later it's beginning to look like the helm with the new hand is attached to a sinking ship.

Today (I'm writing this on 18 January) Time Inc. announced that it was axing 289 positions, more than half in the editorial domain and 40 of those in Time magazine itself. Bureaus in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta are to be closed, according the the Advertising Age link above.

Although Time has a ways to go before finally folding, I think it might be interesting to re-evaluate prospects for the weekly newsmagazine segment.

Before offering my feeble advice to the new editor in the May post, I stated

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

My "personal" position was that of a news-junkie growing up in the (comparative) sticks who gradually needed newsmagazines less and less as new media proliferated. Let me add that even at the height of my Time-adoration, I tended to pay more attention to the (cultural) back of the book than to the (hard news) front.

Okay, one justification for newsmags is that they provide a useful service for folks too busy during the week to keep up with the daily press and TV news. And there are lots of people in that position today, just as there were when Time was gleaming in the eyes of Harry Luce and Britt Hadden. How well are the newsmags serving this sort of customer? Not as well as they once did, judging by their addiction to feature articles.

My "solution" was a return to serious news-summarizing at the cost of a big circulation-drop. But, truth is, a Web-based summary system likely would do that job better than print.

If that's so, then is there any commercially viable role for a weekly general-news publication?

I can't think of one.

Can you?

UPDATE: For Jeff Jarvis' take, click here.



posted by Donald at January 18, 2007


I still pay for the Economist; just reupped last week. The justifications for a weekly? It's nice to read something on a page instead of on a glowing lampshade. A web summary would probably do the job as well, but thus far none seems to fit the bill.

In print, I nip and pick at a broader range of stories and sometimes feel I'm distinguishing a pattern. The physical reading experience is more comfortable and feels more leisurely. Bouncing through a lot of material quickly on a computer - using an rss reader, say - feels more frenetic, maybe because of the broader range of the feeds and the lack of any editor but me.

Thus far, anyway, I'm still willing to shell out the $100. But I'm 45 years old, so that may simply reflect ingrained preference, and I'm not sure I'd pay if the magazine put all its content on the web. Does anyone who's young enough to have read online news all their adult life think it's worth paying?

Posted by: robert on January 19, 2007 3:40 AM

Donald - Too bad about Time, but I noted in your first posts on this topic that physical news magazines were dead. Online magazines, and even online newspapers, can update their content faster and more effectively than can the physical versions of Time or Newsweek.

For a long time, from late high school to many years out of college, I always subscribed to at least one news weekly. But I don't think that I have bought more than 4 issues of Time or Newsweek in the last 4 years.

I currently have a subscription to the summary news magazine, The Week, but I'm not sure that I'll renew the subscription.

But there are at least three big challenges still looming for both online and physical publications. In the past, as you note, there were lots of "folks too busy during the week to keep up with the daily press and TV news." But increasingly, there are people who don't care for any news that is not entertainment or consumer oriented (the weeklies People and US still seem to be doing well). If publishers cannot deliver a product that the public wants, it doesn't really matter how it's packaged.

When people listen to the radio, for example, they still get the headline news mandated by FCC regulations. But people plugged into their iPods all day never have to listen to any news, and when they get home they are more likely to tune into Entertainment Tonight than to CNN.

Interestingly enough, NBC's Today Show recently announced that they were going to add another hour, but this will just be more of the same: news headlines at the top of the hour and half-hour, and then more fluffy features.

Another big issue, faced equally by physical magazines, online sites, and even podcasts, is how to match advertisers with consumers most effectively, whatever the circulation size of the news product offered.

Lastly, the question of whether and how to charge for news products remain.

On the other hand, the likely demise of Time may create new opportunities for local and regional news magazines. Time may be closing its Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles news bureaus, but obviously this does not mean that there is no news coming from these areas, and someone has to cover it.

A quick trivial example. When David Beckham announced that he was coming to L.A., one of the local sports radio stations did a simulcast with one of the BBC radio stations and the audience could listen to callers on both sides of the pond weigh in on the issue. Computer users from anywhere could listen to an online stream of the program, and excerpts were later made available for a brief time via a podcast. This kind of coverage beat anything you could get by waiting for the belated coverage by Time or Newsweek.

I can easily envision news junkies going to the best local and regional sites to get info about breaking news stories, rather than looking to weekly magazines or the national media.

Posted by: Alec on January 19, 2007 4:12 AM

We pay a hundred a year to get the Economist - it's sort of newsy, but gives us stuff we don't see anywhere else, and the guys who pick the photos and headers are geniuses. If Time fed the same interests, somehow, it could give the Economist a run for its money. Otherwise, I rarely think it's worth a look.

Posted by: dave s on January 19, 2007 6:29 AM

I used to hold my nose up at Time in favor of more highbrow publications until I realized I was always reading old copies of the mag from my parents house. I found I greatly enjoyed some of its stories on pop culture (the Tanya Harding story was a classic, as was the one on OJ). that's the kinds of article Time does best: not the hard analysis but the general overview of the times. These longish essays came out a week or two later, yet they tended to be insightful, though the ostensible subject was trivial.

Now though, so much of the mag is being chopped up into bite-sized pieces that it's hard to get through anything. By catering too much to a younger audience, they lost the special appeal a weekly has. Time was a bit more artsy than Newsweek, a bit better written. And although over the years their entertainment coverage was marred by self-promotion, I generally gave the benefit of the doubt to Richard Corliss and others for not giving too much focus to Time-Media properties.

All in all though the quality of the content depends not on the writers but on the advertising budget. While overseas, I noticed that European versions were much thinner than American versions; that's because the American edition received more advertising.

The weekly mag is suffering a decline for financial reasons. But people read a lot more on the Net (and I guess that's good). Still, the overall reading experience is not good; wouldn't it be nice to be able to read 2blowhards on your lazy boy chair or in bed?

(I actually read most of my newsy weblogs while waiting in line at the postoffice or Walmart. I read RSS feeds on my pda. Unfortunately you guys don't transmit full RSS feeds on your website or else I'd be reading blowhards at target or walmart too.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on January 19, 2007 8:28 AM

Newsmagazines started out giving news.

Today they mostly provide opinions on the news provided by folks who have opinions acceptable to the publisher. Is that worth $100 a year to me? I think not, unless the publisher is God.

Newsmagazines today are a good reason to spare trees.

Posted by: John J. Coupal on January 19, 2007 8:40 AM

Interesting that The Economist has come up twice in three comments - it seems to have a pretty loyal following, doesn't it?. Maybe this shows that a really well done news weekly can still survive in the era of new media. Time and Newsweek are not, in my opinion, well done.

Posted by: tschafer on January 19, 2007 9:45 AM

I first saw Time in 1964: the Economist was vastly better then, and has been ever since.

Posted by: dearieme on January 19, 2007 10:08 AM

This niche is ably filled by the relatively new magazine called The Week, which has hard news from around the world (not just Hollywood and New York) as well as reports of cultural events and fun items like real estate that's for sale around the country and even a recipe.

Posted by: beloml on January 19, 2007 10:50 AM

To clarify, just in case, what I said about the Web was hypothetical. I'm not quite the news-junkie that I was, so I haven't made much effort to find out what might be there. But the potential is real and will at some point be exploited by someone with a really clever page design, etc.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 19, 2007 2:07 PM

I still read Newsweek, if not cover-to-cover, then a good 80% of it, every week. Gives me the "big news" overviews I want and I can read it on the train. Not sure how commercially viable the slice of the consumer pie I represent is, but there it is.

Posted by: Tosy and Cosh on January 19, 2007 4:14 PM

Whither will Time wither? :)

Posted by: JM on January 19, 2007 5:27 PM

I believe TNR is also still doing well, but certainly The Economist shows the viability of the weekly. The problem with Time/Newsweek/USNews are that they're really not any good.

Posted by: cure on January 19, 2007 6:52 PM

Agreed that the Economist does a far more solid job than the US newsmags. Sorry that I forgot to mention it. Maybe that's because it's London-based and is quite pricey even with subscription discouts (the only way I was able to afford it back in my consulting days). Perhaps we can use its health (good or bad) in the future as a comparative measure when examining the progress of Time, et. al. as well as the weekly (print) newsmag sector.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 19, 2007 9:56 PM

The Economist caters to an audience of professionals, managers, mid-to-upper-level civil servants, and aspirants to those ranks. Time and Newsweek are/were aimed at the middle middle class That's the audience that has largely stopped informing itself about politics, culture, international affairs, etc., the sort of thing the newsmagazines provided.

For Time and the rest to adopt Economist standards would mean searching out a completely different readership. It wouldn't be Time anymore.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on January 20, 2007 3:19 PM

The Economist has correspondents in Africa,
south Asia, and elsewhere, so the news has informative asides. It has unfortunately lurched far to the right in US reporting in the last two years,and the new editor promises nothing better.

Are there alternatives that others like for international news and sane coverage of financial markets?

Posted by: lw on January 22, 2007 11:44 AM

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