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Time magazine comes out on top

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010; 9:50 AM

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 became 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.

Beckapalooza

After an "exclusive" interview on "Fox News Sunday," Mediaite leads with Glenn Beck saying he doesn't want to run for president. Excuse me, was anyone asking him to?

What I found more newsworthy was Beck backing off his Obama-has-a-deep-seated-hatred-for-white-people charge, saying it was inaccurate and that he has a big fat mouth. But he replaced the charge by telling Chris Wallace that the president believes in black liberation theology.

Meanwhile, David Broder, who was there, tells us that whites in 1963 feared so many Negroes descending on the capital for the original "Dream" march. But what many worried could spiral out of control, he wrote, instead became "the most benign mob in history." (Also thought I detected an implicit endorsement of gay marriage in this column.)

Mehlman's revelation

Ken Mehlman's self-outing has sparked plenty of commentary, but the New York Times seems to chalk it up as no big deal: "When Ken Mehlman, who ran President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 and then became the party's chairman, said in an interview in The Atlantic this week that he is gay and is working to support a campaign for same-sex marriage, it was met with little controversy.

"Even the commentary accusing him of hypocrisy seemed outweighed by people who wished him well, or merely shrugged."

That misses the point. Mehlman is a former politico, never well known to the public, now safely ensconced in the business world. Imagine if Michael Steele announced today that he was gay. Indeed, Mehlman could not have run the RNC or the Bush campaign if he had been openly gay--and does anyone think that's changed in 2010?

The Daily Beast's Reihan Salam looks at how the parties differ on this question:

"The story of Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee who publicly acknowledged that he is gay in a conversation with reporter Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, is part of a larger American story that is still unfolding.

"A Gallup survey released in May found that 52 percent of Americans consider gay relationships morally acceptable, up from 49 percent a year ago and 40 percent in 2001. But among self-identified Republicans, only 35 percent share that view, a sharp increase from 29 percent last year."

GOP gumshoes

Anyone who remembers the Clinton years and the endless Whitewater probes knows the Republicans aren't shy about using investigations against a president of the other party. And that, says Politico, has implications for 2011:

"Republicans are planning a wave of committee investigations targeting the White House and Democratic allies if they win back the majority.

"Everything from the microscopic -- the New Black Panther party -- to the massive --- think bailouts -- is on the GOP to-do list, according to a half-dozen Republican aides interviewed by POLITICO.

"Republican staffers say there won't be any self-destructive witch hunts -- but they are clearly relishing the prospect of extracting information from an administration that touts transparency.

"And a handful of aggressive would-be committee chairmen -- led by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) -- are quietly gearing up for a possible season of subpoenas not seen since the Clinton wars of the late 1990s."

I wouldn't think they'd want to advertise that for the midterms, given that much of the public hates partisan warfare.

Who is Obama?

The pundits have written this column many times, but Peggy Noonan is still trying to figure out what makes Barack Obama tick:

"He is still a mystery to a lot of people.

"Actually, what is confounding is that he seems more a mystery to people now than he did when they elected him president.

"The president is overexposed, yet on some level the picture is blurry. He's in your face on TV, but you still don't fully get him. People categorize him in political terms: 'He's a socialist,' 'He's a pragmatic progressive.' But beyond that disagreement, things get murky. When you think about his domestic political decisions, it's hard to tell if he's playing a higher game or a clueless game. Is he playing three-dimensional chess, or is he simply out of his depth?

"Underscoring the unknowns is the continuing question about him and those around him: How did they read the public mood so well before the presidency and so poorly after? In his first 19 months on the job, the president has often focused on issues that were not the top priority of the American people. He was thinking about one thing--health care--when they were thinking about others--the general economy, deficits. He's on one subject, they're on another. He has been contradictory: I'm for the mosque, I didn't say I'm for the mosque. He's detached from the Gulf oil spill, he's all about the oil spill. . . .

"The hope of the White House, which knows it is about to take a drubbing, is probably this: that the Republicans in Congress will devolve into a freak show, overplay their hand, lose their focus, be a little too colorful. If that meme emerges -- and the media will be looking for it -- the Republicans may wind up giving the president the positive definition he lacks. They could save him."

Hey, it worked for Clinton.

Palin power

Atlantic's Chris Good says there's more than meets the eye to Sarah Palin's boost of Joe Miller against Lisa Murkowski:

"The former governor is not particularly popular in her home state, after abdicating the governor's mansion and giving a rather confused explanation -- that frivolous attacks and ethics complaints were weighing her down -- as to why she did so. An April poll by Alaska firm Dittman Research found that 52% of Alaskans viewed her unfavorably. At the same time, she's popular among Republicans: the same poll found 71% of registered Republicans viewed her favorably.

"Palin didn't really campaign for Miller. A few weeks ahead of the election, she had attended no private fundraisers or public campaign rallies for him. In the home stretch, she did record a robocall for him, and her husband, Todd Palin, did hold a fundraiser.

"It seems that Palin had the most effect on this race by attracting the endorsement and money of Tea Party Express, which spent $560,000 to help Miller in the final two months of the race. That group appears to enjoy a good relationship with Palin--she's spoken at two of their rallies free of charge, and she's ridden on their tour bus--so, when Palin endorsed Miller on June 2, and Tea Party Express followed with an endorsement on June 17, the connection seemed apparent."

Of course, it helps that Murkowski took him so lightly.

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

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