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Thinner Time magazine still manages to stand out

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010; C01

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.

Some of Time's reporting-driven covers this year: "Why Being Pope Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry"; "The Broken States of America"; "The Best Laws Money Can Buy"; and a fascinating look back at the cultural impact of "The Pill." There were also such well-worn newsweekly compilations as "The 100 Most Influential People in the World" and "10 Ideas for the Next 10 Years."

Having cultivated a long relationship with Steve Jobs, Time landed an exclusive interview for a cover on the launch of the iPad -- and becoming the first news publication to have its app on the hot new tablet.

Of course, it's not possible to be original all the time. After the recent cover story titled "What Animals Think," Slate's Jack Shafer pointed out that Time ran a 1993 story ("Can Animals Think?") and a 1999 cover (also headlined "Can Animals Think?") on the subject. Stengel laughs off the history, saying: "It actually sold really well."

Backed by the resources of Time Warner, Stengel has also pursued such moneymaking ventures as a two-day conference in South Africa during the World Cup, staged with Fortune and CNN. The keynote speakers were Bill Clinton and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

One lasting change may have been the simplest. Stengel believes that switching publication from Monday to Friday -- he unveils the cover every Thursday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" -- was important because the magazine became weekend reading.

Time.com now offers a news feed, a collection of links aimed at stopping such sites as the Huffington Post from cannibalizing its traffic. The company plans to offer tiered pricing for access to the Web site, the magazine or something in between.

Another upgrade is the Swampland blog, with reporters such as Klein contributing. "I thought it was important for us to have an interactive relationship with our readers," Klein says. But he still has reservations: "I'm sometimes too quick. I've made mistakes as a blogger that I would never make as a columnist." He says the feedback is valuable but that the posted comments tend to be dominated by extremists.

Buoyed by Time's recent success, Stengel uses a word not generally associated with plain old journalism: "We have the nirvana that people are looking for. We have a product that people actually like and are willing to pay for."

We are getting smaller

USA Today, once a newspaper success story, said last week it would lay off 130 employees, about 9 percent of its staff. The Gannett paper, whose circulation has dropped from 2.3 million to 1.8 million in recent years, plans to deemphasize its print edition and no longer employ separate managing editors for its News, Money, Sports and Life sections. Like most publications, USA Today wants to move more aggressively in the online and mobile markets, but the ink-on-paper product is what generates the greatest profits.

Milbank unplugged

The Washington Post has a new op-ed columnist.

Dana Milbank, who has been writing the "Washington Sketch" feature for nearly six years, is moving to the editorial page, where he will be free to opine at will. But Milbank says his writing will still be rooted in reporting and observation.

"Anybody reading my column would make an informed judgment that I'm left-of-center, and I wouldn't quarrel with that," he says. "But strongly ideological people on the left do not recognize me as one of their own."

A former New Republic and Wall Street Journal staffer who once covered the White House for The Post, Milbank ran up against the limits of the scene-setting sketch format: "If something exciting is happening, I'm golden. If nothing is happening, I've got to make a column out of nothing. And anything out of the capital was off limits."

Milbank isn't putting his funny side -- which got him in trouble during the ill-fated "Mouthpiece Theater" videos -- in a blind trust. He says he will still write some sketches online and contribute to a Post humor blog.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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