The US news weekly is relaunching in a bid to get its old magic back, reports Edward Helmore
Time chases us all, but it has been gaining on Time magazine particularly relentlessly. So, last week, the venerable US news weekly changed its publication day to Friday from Monday and began a relaunch designed to ensure that the publication, both in print and on the web, regains its former place in the media constellation.
Some of the problems at Time, as well as rivals Newsweek and US News & World Report, are the same as those affecting newspapers: static or declining circulation, loss of advertising revenue to the web, rising costs of production, ageing readership. But news magazines have further issues to contend with.
Luxury titles like Vogue and Glamour that connote aspiration, or well-targeted magazines like the Economist, with a readership desirable to advertisers, continue to do well, albeit with flat advertising revenues for the past two years. But general interest magazines like Time have been watching their position and relevance slip. They are not only highly vulnerable to competition from newspapers and television; they have been acutely affected by the internet.
With consumers now typically looking to the web for news - then, perhaps, print for analysis and comment - the news weeklies have found themselves in the same predicament as weekend newspapers. They neither lead the news, nor set the agenda, and act instead as creatures of habit to a declining, stagnant readership.
Of America's three news weeklies - Time Warner's Time, the Washington Post-owned Newsweek, and billionaire Mort Zuckerman's US News & World Report, Time is the first to acknowledge explicitly the predicament they all face: that it's one thing to lose money, another to lose money and be ignored. 'I believe that getting the magazine on newsstands on Friday helps us set the news agenda,' newly appointed managing editor Richard Stengel wrote on Friday.
Stengel, who was appointed after successfully boosting web readership by 30 per cent in a year, has initiated other changes. The website now looks like a cross between a newspaper and the Google news page, with more blogs and video content. A complementary redesign of the magazine will follow in a couple of months. 'This speaks to survival,' says industry analyst Martin Walker. 'News weeklies can no longer compete with television or newspapers, and no one can compete with the internet for news. They have to connect with readers again, or they won't have a future.'
Henry Luce, the publishing titan who founded Time nearly 84 years ago, must be turning in his grave. For decades, the magazine was a weekly source of news and information for the nation, a dependable, authoritative voice. The shake-up Time is undergoing has a familiar ring: a venerable organisation with an illustrious reputation looking to stay relevant.
Even the premise of the news weekly - its general-interest agenda - is dated in an era when magazines have become focused on narrower bands of identifiable readers. 'People can no longer wait to get their news once a week, and in truth the news weeklies have long since ceased being news magazines in the traditional sense. Time magazine is now taking this a bit further toward opinion and features,' says Walker.
As part of the shake-up, the baseline readership figure that is guaranteed to advertisers has been reduced by 20 per cent and, in keeping with the rest of the industry, deep cuts in the magazine's 280 editorial employees are expected soon.
Stengel is also expected to dissolve some of the hierarchies entrenched in the US magazine business. At magazines like Time, there aren't simply reporters and editors: there are senior writers, staff writers, writer-reporters, senior reporters, reporters, fact-checkers, interns, editorial assistants and others. If these titles are abolished, staff members fear, their security will be diminished.
So deep is this anxiety that there were rumours that management consultancy McKinsey, which had been asked to recommend changes, was considering having editing outsourced to India. In an institution like Time, where copy is written to a strict style and edited on paper, the idea alone was a portent of bad news to come.
Time reporters have reason to be suspicious: management has already shown it intends to promote opinion over news by hiring historian Niall Ferguson and economist Jeffrey Sachs as columnists. Opinion, after all, is less expensive to acquire than news and requires less editing - and it's easier to discern the results: readers either read columnists or they don't, and those they don't get fired. The web gives editors precise information about which stories and columns visitors to the site linger over.
It remains to be seen how much status the weeklies can reclaim. Time's four million readership is hardly an irrelevance, but it lacks the cultural punch it once had. 'It used to be that news magazine covers were extraordinarily important,' Stephen Smith, a veteran of all three weeklies, told the New York Times. 'If you made the cover, it was a really a major event. Now the impact is greatly muted.'
For Time Warner, choosing where to deploy its resources is difficult. Some of its other titles, such as Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated, do not have Time's circulation, but they have greater profit potential because of their ad-friendly targeted readership. But if the point of a news weekly is now to expand upon and interpret the news, then Time's new direction is at least an acknowledgement of reality. In publishing, the force is not with the weeklies; they survive, but they do so without impact.
'It's not as though, if they didn't change, they'd cease to exist,' says Walker. 'It's still a major news publication. But they're taking a larger view of their situation and trying to move in the right direction.'