Richard Stengel removes his jacket and rolls up his sleeves like a man readying himself for a stump speech. Tall and wanly handsome, with an off-center smile, Time’s new managing editor is facing a room full of 100 former editors, publishers, and photographers from the magazine’s venerable past. Largely white-haired, many balding, some hobbling on canes, not a few cupping their ears to hear, the members of the Time-Life Alumni Society are here to find out what brave new direction Stengel, 51 years old and eight months into his tenure, will take the 84-year-old weekly.
“The ultimate mission about sustaining Time is about greatness,” he declares from the podium. “One of the things we’re doing in the future is trying to be selective, go for the best. I believe that is what Time always was. I believe that is what will make Time great again.”
A former advertising executive, sitting in a darkened corner, raises his hand.
“Hasn’t Time magazine’s time passed?”
The room goes silent. “And you are an alumni of this society?” asks Stengel, getting a nervous laugh from the audience.
“It was launched 80 years ago!” says the man, before uttering a sentence that hardly needs to be spoken. “It was a very different world then.”
When it’s the faithful who are questioning the relevance of one of the oldest and most sacred magazines, you’ve got a problem. Of course, it’s a problem they’ve had for some time. The magazine started by Henry Luce and Briton Hadden in 1923 to condense a week’s worth of newspapers into a one-stop digest has been declared headed for the proverbial dustbin for at least twenty years, ever since the advent of cable news. But today, with the fundamental business model of publishing under assault as never before, even Time Inc. acknowledges that Time is at an “inflection point”—a corporate euphemism for the witching hour.
That is why the magazine is in the midst of what its publisher, Ed McCarrick, is calling a “revolution,” led by Stengel and the man who hired him—John Huey, the irascible editor-in-chief of the magazine’s parent company, Time Inc. Having spent their careers getting to this moment, neither Huey nor Stengel wants to preside over the death of a great American magazine.
After a long pause, Stengel manages an answer to the adman’s skepticism.
“Even twenty years after Life magazine stopped publishing, it was still one of the most venerated and recognized brands among Americans,” Stengel argues. “There’s a power and a value to that. And I think we can piggyback on the power of our brand, to help make it essential reading today.”
It’s an odd reference, given that Life has come to represent epic magazine death, proof that even the biggest brands can fall.
Stengel came of age at Time, incubating on the 24th floor of the Time & Life Building along with a generation of writers who now make up a significant chunk of the media Establishment. There was Walter Isaacson and Jim Kelly, who would become managing editors at Time; Graydon Carter, who would eventually run Vanity Fair; Kurt Andersen, who would head New York Magazine for a time (and now writes a column for it); Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, who would become New York Times columnists. For that generation, Time magazine was still the Camelot of American media. To its readers, Time was then what it had always been: a savvy expression of Middle American values—optimistic, middlebrow, reliable. When Kelly went on a reporting assignment to a small town in Kansas in 1982, Time was so powerful an icon that people asked him to autograph copies of the magazine. “I felt like a demigod,” he says.
Kelly is the one who brought Stengel into the fold at Time. The two attended Princeton University together in the mid-seventies and studied under John McPhee, the venerated New Yorker writer. When Stengel got his entry-level job in the early eighties, the reporting system was the same one established by Luce in the forties. There were some 40 staff writers at the magazine and nearly 100 correspondents in almost 30 bureaus around the world, each of whom filed reports to a news desk that distributed them to writers, who in turn crafted them into stories. Staffers spent late nights hunched over Selectric typewriters, padding the halls in stocking feet, eating catered dinners, and closing the magazine in the wee hours of Saturday morning—essentially living and working together in the wealthy Eden of Time Inc., where little expense was spared.
After the magazine closed for the week, they decamped in dial-a-cabs to the Hamptons, where Kelly, Stengel, and Isaacson rented a bungalow in Sag Harbor dubbed “the Mouse House” because the woman who owned it collected dozens of mouse figurines. On any given weekend, media luminaries-to-be like Michiko Kakutani and Alessandra Stanley of the Times, former New York columnist and TV screenwriter Lawrence O’Donnell, and Evan Thomas of Newsweek could be found bonding at the beach.