Monoliths Of Media: Time and its classic competitors, Newsweek and Businessweek (now Bloomberg Businessweek), have all been in print for more than 70 years, but Time alone has made it through the decline of the print journalism industry relatively unscathed.
The decision by the corporate owner of Newsweek to put the magazine up for sale has once more raised the question in journalism circles as to whether there's a role — or any future at all — for newsweekly magazines.
"The idea of a magazine that looks at the week, wraps it up and puts a little forward spin on it, that's pretty much an anachronism," says Alan D. Mutter, a former newspaper editor and current consultant on digital media ventures. "People are consuming news left and right, and if you aim to be informed, it's pretty hard not to be."
Yet over at the historic Time-Life Building, in offices looking out over Midtown Manhattan from the 23rd floor, editors putting out the nation's leading such magazine are much more sanguine about their fate.
"In terms of our category, we're not only the last guy standing — we're the only guy standing," says Rick Stengel, Time magazine's managing editor, its most senior editorial position. "We convert information into knowledge. Knowledge is what people want. Information is the commodity."
The State Of Today's Newsweekly
Time enjoyed an estimated profit of around $40 million last year. Although the magazine does not confirm the figure, Stengel says it is on track to increase profits this year.
It's Time's competitors that are in rough shape. Last year Businessweek was sold to Bloomberg News for a few million dollars; in 2008 U.S.News & World Report announced its move from a weekly to a monthly publication; and in 2009, after losing tens of millions of dollars a year and with the help of Editor Jon Meacham, Newsweek reinvented itself to be more of a journal of opinion and analysis.
"If we succeed, these well-argued essays will make you feel vindicated — or maybe outraged," Kathleen Deveny, Newsweek's deputy editor, wrote in May 2009. "But they'll draw you in. Because while there is no shortage of information out there, we believe there is a scarcity of insight."
Last month, however, the Washington Post Co., Newsweek's corporate parent of nearly five decades, put it up for sale.
One suitor for Newsweek, Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of the conservative news site and monthly magazine Newsmax, says it's a terrific publication in many ways. But he argues the Washington Post Co. may not have served Newsweek well.
"One of the things that's pretty clear, if you compare Time to Newsweek, is that Newsweek, in order to save money in the downturn, started cutting content," Ruddy says in an interview. "It's pretty thin."
'Looking For Context'
Over at Time, editors say the reinvention of Newsweek, whatever its journalistic merits, represents a retreat from the newsweekly field.
Under Stengel, Time pursued its own reinvention three years ago to try to evolve for a digital age. It changed its publication date to Fridays, saying surveys of readers found they too often put the magazine aside after receiving it on Mondays. Reporters and editors were encouraged to gin up more content for the Web, freeing them to break news more frequently — and not coincidentally pull in more readers to Time.com.
And, just as important, the magazine reduced its circulation to a core audience that's more appealing to advertisers — 3.2 million paid subscribers.
They are, Stengel says, "not so much people who are trying to find out the latest bit of information about how many points did [Sen.] Blanche Lincoln win by, but people who are looking for context, who are looking for larger meaning."
Stengel seems a bit surprised to note his core subscriber base has grown a bit over the in the past year. And he says he's heartened by the response to Time's iPad application. In the future, Stengel says, he'll be happy even if most readers know little about Time's print edition — as long as they're paying for the magazine's electronic touch tablet editions.
Courtesy of Time
In an effort to stay relevant, Time's covers have featured everything from natural disasters to pop culture icons.
In an effort to stay relevant, Time's covers have featured everything from natural disasters to pop culture icons. Courtesy of Time
'Everything New Is Old'
But Time has clearly withered from the role it held, in the words of the late David Halberstam, as "the true voice of American life at the mid-century." And that problem may not be resolvable, Mutter says, because by the time it appears in Time, everything new is old. He argues the magazine has not done enough to provide indispensable or appealing content online and in its iPad application.
"I'm in the media soup …. every day of the week, and I find out about things that are important one way or another," Mutter says. "If Time has a story that's important, I find out about it very quickly, but do I sit and go through Time — either in print or on the Web — to see if they have anything? I do not."
Former Businessweek Editor-in-Chief Stephen Shepard says that's the new conventional wisdom — and it's wrong. Shepard points to the success of The Week, The Economist and even Time's sister publication, People, to argue Time has a strong chance at a bright future, if it provides original and desired content.
"They have to do enterprising journalism, trend stories, they have to do investigative stories," says Shepard, now dean of the graduate school of journalism for the City University of New York. "They have to do things that people can't get elsewhere. And if they do that, a significant amount of the time, they can be successful." (As a sign of how small the newsweekly world is, Shepard is also a former top national editor at Newsweek, and Stengel sits on his unpaid advisory board at CUNY's journalism school.)
Time Executive Editor Nancy Gibbs, a revered writer there for 25 years, says the challenge for the magazine remains the same it has been for the past 80 years. "The discipline has always been, not what do you cover, but what do you not cover," Gibbs says. "It has always been an exercise in ignoring things ... in saying that's not important enough, or that's not interesting enough, or that's not surprising enough."
How's the mix working? Different journalists will come to different conclusions. Time continues to draw on its deep journalistic resources to cover wars, economy and the BP oil spill but has also served up cover stories on Glenn Beck, Jay Leno and the value of exercise.
Time's Stengel says his magazine is more relevant now than ever — whether in print, online or in digital tablet form.
"I'm a big believer that nothing ever actually goes away," Stengel says. "People still make pottery, write epic poetry. Beautiful print magazines will always exist. But you'll have a lot of different options to get Time's content."