Will Turning Back ‘Time’ Help the Media Icon Survive?

Time-Inc

After years as a media conglomerate involved in movies and cable television, Time Inc. has returned to its roots as a magazine company. Will one of the most iconic names in journalism thrive in the new media environment? In this opinion piece, George M. Taber, a long-time Time Inc. employee, explains why he is pessimistic. Taber was a reporter and senior editor for Time magazine from 1967 to 1988, when he left to start the business weekly NJBIZ.

Time Inc. is a public corporation selling its stock on Wall Street. It is once again a magazine company after years as a media conglomerate whose heart and management attention were in movies and cable television. What is not clear is whether the new Time magazine will be able to compete in the world of new media and the Internet. Anyone who picks up its publications such as Time, People, Fortune and Sports Illustrated knows instantly that Time Inc. is a company in trouble.

None of them has what we used to call the “plop factor.” You don’t hear the sound of a “plop” when the magazines land on a coffee table. A long-time Time Inc. employee such as myself can only wonder if it will survive, and worry that the company will become another victim of the historic developments taking place in the media. This is the greatest change in the business since the birth of the penny press in the 19th century. To steal a line from a famous New Yorker parody of Time, where it will end knows only God.

Time Inc.’s track record up to now in the new media world has not been encouraging. All of its publications have struggled to find their role in a world where most people get the majority of their news from the Internet. Time, in particular, has gone through endless design remakes in a search to find its own relevance. Its original role as a weekly digest of the most important news of the past week was dumped along the way. That has been replaced by a few long stories that may or may not have been in the news and lots of snippets of information that people already know. Those news nuggets are mostly printed in tiny fonts that are difficult for anyone with less than 20/20 vision to read. I personally often wonder if the magazine is a product of the art director rather than the editor.

A Brief History of Time

The new company is a return to the original Time Inc. Its current problems reflect the fact that it lost its focus on news to chase cable television and Hollywood. Founded in 1922 by Harry Luce and Briton Haddon, two young Yale graduates with good social ties, Time was an instant success by simply rewriting TheNew York Times once a week with a cheeky and irreverent tone. Then in 1929 came Fortune, a monthly business magazine, Life in 1936 and People in 1974. All of them had a distinct personality and were hugely profitable.

“This is the greatest change in the business since the birth of the penny press in the 19th century. To steal a line from a famous New Yorker parody of Time, where it will end knows only God.”

Time eventually hired its own staff rather than rewriting the Times. Young people lusted after jobs either in New York or in the field. Many of them in the early days were Yalies, but eventually the magazine drew from a larger pool. Time staffers, or “Time Inc.-ers” as they called themselves, were paid very well for journalists, and they were the best and brightest. Legendary people such as Life photographer Margaret Bourke White and writers James Agee and John Hersey worked there.

Perhaps the peak of Time Inc.’s power was during World War II. Life and Time reporters roamed the world with their limitless expense accounts, and America followed the war with Time stories and Life pictures. But even in the late 1950s, Time Inc. was still a powerhouse. When John Kennedy was running for president, he cozied up to Henry Luce and Time’s Washington reporter, Hugh Sidey, on the grounds that Time Inc. spoke directly to Middle America and could deliver those votes.

As television news improved in the 1960s, Time’s influence waned, but it remained powerful. Unfortunately, though, starting in the 1970s, it started looking for new sources of profits. Henry Luce died in 1967, shortly before I joined the company in New York. Many of the new ventures such as Time-Life Books were very successful, but the eyes of top management were no longer on just news and just magazines.

One of the early and successful ventures was Home Box Office (now known as HBO) in 1972, which tapped into cable television. That was followed by the large cable operation. Jerry Levin, who went on to become the company’s CEO, was the master behind them. Time Inc. then went into making movies for television. The company was also very successful; the money flowed in and the television side prospered. The biggest of the new ventures was the merger in 1989 with Warner films, and the new company was renamed Time-Warner. It merged in 1996 with Turner Broadcasting, which was successful in cable news and television. The merger with America Online (now known as AOL) in 2000 was a disaster that quickly failed.

The news division became a small part of the new media company. It made a half-hearted effort to find synergy between its various operations that now resembled a ratatouille with the launch of Cable Week, which was similar to TV Guide but with a focus on cable television. That was a costly flop, and top managers such as Levin, who never understood news or magazines, were wary about starting anything new. The company, however, was throwing off a lot of profits; it bought up a host of new publications that were all over the map and often lacked direction.

“The company’s best and brightest wandered over to [the movie and cable television] part of the company, while the print publications were safe as long as they continued to make money.”

Focus on Hollywood

It didn’t really matter, though, because the company’s focus was then on movies and cable television. The company’s best and brightest wandered over to that part of the company, while the print publications were safe as long as they continued to make money. Editorial budgets, however, started being cut in a drive to make them more profitable. Gathering news is expensive, and the days were gone when Life magazine could hire a plane to bring pictures of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding back to New York, developing the film and completing the layouts in-flight to meet deadline.

I left Time in 1988 to start a weekly business publication in New Jersey, NJBIZ, which was similar to Crain’s New York Business. I couldn’t help but think it was probably the type of magazine that a young Henry Luce might have started. New magazines, though, were not on the radar screen for the new Time Warner. It was focused on Hollywood.

Since I was no longer at the company, I can’t say what transpired there after 1988. But I think it’s clear from a distance that top management never really understood what was happening in the print world or how to survive there. When new media started taking off in the 1990s, Time Inc. was caught flatfooted. Top management was still stung by the disaster at Cable Week, and thought of simply doing new magazine designs, an operation they understood and with which they were comfortable. New editors were brought in regularly, but nothing worked.

Henry Luce’s genius from the 1920s until his death was the insight that people liked reading about people. With only rare exceptions, such as the “Is God Dead?” cover in 1966, the magazine had a person on the cover. Especially during the reign in the early part of the 2000s of managing editor Rick Stengel, a graduate of Princeton and a Rhodes Scholar, the cover was devaluated. Perhaps the apogee of that terrible trend was a cover about American education that had a school chair on the cover. The old Time magazine would have put Michelle Rhee on the cover and had an up-close-and-personal profile of her.

Time’s attempts to find its way in the new media landscape resembled the awkwardness of a teenager learning to drive: She doesn’t know how to handle the car. The attempts to link the print and Internet worlds seemed to be stillborn.

Brave New World

Some print publications have been able to move into that brave new world with apparent great success. Perhaps the best example is Britain’s Economist. Its print publication hasn’t changed that much over the years, yet it passes the plop test with great ease. It seems thicker than ever. Its price has gone up sharply, but people will pay it because of the quality of its writing and editorial insight. I devour it every week, reading from the back forward. Its full-page obituaries at the end are always worth the time. They often introduce me to interesting people whom I never knew about before. TheWall Street Journal also seems to have found its way into the new media world.

“I fear that people brought up on the old media will find it impossible to react quickly and correctly in the world of new media.”

Those two publications have successfully ventured into the new world without leaving the old. They offer both online and print products, so subscribers can get both breaking news and thoughtful analysis about what something really means. Bridging the divide between the two worlds can be done, but it’s not easy.

I am not optimistic, though, that Time Inc. will be able to do it. Its attempts going back to the venture into a cable television magazine are not encouraging. The first steps have been stumbles. Division of church and state, the foundation of Luce publications, has gone out the window. Managing editors no longer report to the top, but to the business side. One can only think that editorial content will be compromised. The decision to start printing small advertisements on the front cover is an outrage. Have they no shame?

Perhaps most worrisome to me is the age of the new CEO, Joseph Ripp, 62, and the new editor-in-chief, Norm Pearlstine, 72. The latter was brought back out of retirement. I have nothing against old people; I’m one myself. But I fear that people brought up on the old media will find it impossible to react quickly and correctly in the world of new media. A general who directed an army in World War II is probably not the right person to lead the current war on terrorism.

I haven’t cancelled my subscription to Time, and one can always hope. I don’t believe that going back to the past will work. In the meantime, I will live with happy memories of life at Time.

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