Thinner Time magazine still manages to stand out

That was then: Among the notable cover stories from its heyday was this one in 1966.
That was then: Among the notable cover stories from its heyday was this one in 1966. (Time)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010

Rick Stengel may have his shoulder in a sling, but when it comes to the newsmagazine wars, he's the last man standing.

The reason, says Time's managing editor, is that "we saw what was coming. We wanted to fix the roof when the sun was shining."

With the roof having fallen in on Newsweek (which is being sold to a 92-year-old business mogul) and U.S. News & World Report (which has mostly moved online), Stengel isn't just boasting when he says, "We've become a category of one." Time is a smaller magazine than when he took over four years ago, but its survival is no mean feat in such a toxic environment for print publications.

What's more, the constant drumbeat about the imminent death of newsmagazines -- building "since we were in short pants," Stengel says -- made the challenge especially tricky. And Time has done it mainly with serious journalism, moving away from the celebrity covers that were once a staple of the genre.

A cover story still has an impact: Time's recent "Is America Islamophobic?" helped broaden the "mosque" debate, and last week's "The Case Against Homeownership" was both contrarian and well-timed, given plummeting housing sales. (It "hit the zeitgeist," Stengel proclaims -- a bull's-eye in magazine-speak.)

The impact of such covers may not be as great as when Time asked "Is God Dead?" in 1966, but then again, media audiences everywhere are shrinking. And Time's Web site -- which no longer posts the magazine's stories until two weeks later -- has boosted its audience by 47 percent in the last two years, to 7 million monthly visitors, according to Nielsen.

Gains and losses

Sidney Harman, the audio equipment magnate who is buying Newsweek from The Washington Post Co., told the Wall Street Journal last week that he'd be happy to break even in three years. Time, company sources say, is on track to earn a profit of more than $50 million this year.

"I've never taken any satisfaction in their downward spiral, but obviously it does create opportunities for us," Stengel says, adding that he hopes Newsweek makes it. Harman has yet to name an editor to succeed Jon Meacham.

Stengel, a natural salesman who recently had shoulder surgery after aggravating an old high school injury playing basketball, hasn't grown complacent. While he had to trim the roughly 200-person staff by a quarter over four years, relying more on freelancers, he has assembled a team of high-profile writers. These include a spate of journalists from The Post, including Michael Grunwald, David Von Drehle and Pulitzer Prize winner Barton Gellman. Stengel also brought in Mark Halperin from ABC, Michael Crowley from the New Republic and, most recently, Fareed Zakaria from Newsweek. "He's a great global brand," Stengel says, adding that Zakaria can promote his stories on his show at CNN, a unit of Time Warner.

Time has lost a few big-name contributors as well, including Michael Kinsley, Andrew Sullivan and Bill Kristol. And Stengel, a speechwriter for Bill Bradley's presidential campaign, has no prominent conservative to balance liberal columnist Joe Klein.

After being locked for decades in a Coke-Pepsi race, Time and Newsweek both decided to downsize. Time has shrunk its circulation from 4 million to 3.25 million, shedding giveaway or discounted circulation.

Both abandoned weekly news summaries, which in the digital age felt like an irrelevant throwback to the days of Henry Luce. Time adopted what Stengel calls "reported analysis," stories with a clear point of view -- often left of center -- that were rooted in shoe-leather work. Newsweek, which moved more sharply left, bet the ranch last year on more opinionated essays and columns -- and lost.

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