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The Time of Their Lives

Time through the years, from the first cover (upper left corner) to a witty example from the Stengel era (lower right corner).  

The revolution is essentially a two-part strategy: Huey and Squires agreed that the first thing to be done was to change the delivery date for Time. The magazine’s own internal research showed that people were more willing to read news in print on the weekends, after they’d trolled the Web for headlines all week. “That means you close the magazine in the middle of the week, and you’re giving up this idea of ‘There was a week, it had news, and here’s what it was,’ and it becomes more of something you do—more forward-looking, more contextual analysis,” says Huey.

Part two of the strategy—a natural outgrowth of part one—would be to focus on developing Time has millions of happy customers who pay to read it, and we need to keep those people happy,” says Huey. “But we also need to face the reality that people get their information in a lot of different ways now. When we break news, we need to break it on the Web and we need to get people used to going to it.”

The Web, of course, is where the entire news industry is looking for salvation. But Time has been slow to get off the starting line. Currently, attracts half as many visitors as its competitor Newsweek .com. Stengel’s missionary zeal for the Web was one of the principal reasons he was hired. To turn the site around, he’s put in place Josh Tyrangiel, a 34-year-old writer and editor at Time who was hired by Isaacson and wrote music reviews when Stengel ran the “Arts” section in 2000. Tyrangiel is caffeinated, fast-talking, and rarely blinks. “We need to set a course,” he says. “And the course is 24-hour news for smart people. It’s about saving people time by not burying them with information they don’t need. It’s about using the curatorial and the editorial things that have been in place at this magazine for 84 years.” Pause. “Eighty-three years? Years.

“I’m not a patient guy,” he adds. “I’m in the mood to get moving, and a lot of other people are, too.”

While it is hard to argue with shifting resources online, there is no assurance that will ever be able to sustain the version of Time that exists today. As it stands, the Web brings in just a fraction of Time’s revenue—enough to pay for a few columnists and some bloggers but certainly not a whole news organization.

In fact, no one knows if any of this will work. In preemptively changing its print strategy, Time executives like to think they’re making a quantum leap past arch-rival Newsweek, strategically isolating it as an old-line Monday news read. And perhaps they have. But it might not be enough.

“They’re fighting a rearguard action, but that’s how you lose wars,” says Mark Edmiston, the former Newsweek executive who is now managing director of AdMedia Partners. “All you can do is push away the day when the reckoning occurs.”

Then there’s the question of what sort of magazine Time becomes after the revolution. There is some confusion on this point. Over a glass of wine at Palio Bar on 51st Street, Stengel asks me to guess what the most profitable newsmagazine in the world is. The answer, he says, is The Economist.

A magazine of news analysis and intelligent opinion with a clean, easy design, The Economist is a model Stengel admires and wants to inform the new Time. Of course, The Economist has only about half a million readers in the U.S., and Time needs about a couple of million more readers than that to keep its profit margin up, assuming it’s not going to charge big money for a yearly subscription. (The Economist charges about $100 for a yearly subscription to Time’s $30.) And one can’t help but wonder if The Economist isn’t too highbrow for a Time reader sitting in the doctor’s office.

Stengel says he doesn’t want to dumb down Time on the presumption that people don’t like a smart magazine.

But what, I ask him, about the infamous editorial maxim, “Put the food down where the dog can eat it”?

“Whose line is that?” he asks.

John Huey’s, I tell him. It’s a legendary Huey line that has been kicking around Time Inc. for years.

Stengel has never heard it before.

Later, when I ask John Huey about The Economist comparison, he rejects it entirely. “If we aim it at The Economist audience, we’re going to be a lot smaller,” he says. “Well, that’s not the magazine we’re making. To say that we’re going down that road is not where we’re going.”

Stengel later amends his description: He didn’t mean Time would be smarter, just more “aspirational.” When I ask Stengel if he and Huey had discussed the “smart” point after I’d brought it up, he says, “I guess we talked about the ‘smarter’ argument. He’s a little sensitive about that. So many people in the media world equate smartness with a niche and dumbness with mass.”