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The Time of Their Lives

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“Mass class” is the needle-threading phrase Stengel has found to describe Time’s big, aspiring audience, which seems to mean a huge crowd of random middle-class people who are smart (but not too smart) and engaged (but not too engaged) and might buy a Toyota if they see an ad in Time—aspiring to be like readers of The Economist, but not so much that they’d subscribe to The Economist instead of Time.

Calibrating the message of what Time will be hasn’t been easy. At the alumni meeting, Stengel said, “The sense that Time originally had was it covered the waterfront. What we’re doing now is a little bit narrower.”

Despite Huey’s lip service to mass, Stengel has already given Time magazine a narrower and sharper editorial profile, with more covers about war and politics than usual and almost no pop culture (Anna Nicole Smith didn’t make the cut) or soft social reporting (like the ever-popular Jesus Christ covers). He has aggressively ramped up the opinion in Time, hiring established, brand-name white guys who telegraph wonkishness. There’s liberal columnist Michael Kinsley, Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, and of course Walter Isaacson. (Five of the seven members of Stengel’s in-house advisory group—dubbed “the Magnificent Seven” by Stengel’s secretary—voted against hiring Isaacson, according to people familiar with the matter. Stengel said, “I guess this is where I get to be managing editor,” and hired him anyway.) Time now reads more like Meet the Press in print, which is essentially what Stengel is striving for when he says he wants Time to “lead the conversation.”

The redesign, by former New York Magazine design director Luke Hayman for the design firm Pentagram, is scheduled to appear on newsstands March 16. It is also expected to signal a more serious magazine: sparer and less cluttered, with a smaller logo, heavier paper stock, and more use of black and white. “Classic,” says Stengel. There will be new sections reminiscent of older versions of Time (the front of the book, now called “Notebook,” will be rechristened “Briefing”) and a slew of new columns in what Stengel calls a “branded expertise mall,” including Joel Stein—“a god to people in their twenties and thirties,” says Stengel—on food and Samantha Power on foreign affairs.

The conundrum is this: Changing the formula risks alienating Time’s mass audience. But media is losing mass anyway, having slowly fragmented along social, political, and demographic lines over the past twenty years. Mass media like Time—along with network news—has faded in this environment because advertisers are following younger readers into niche media. Time’s own media critic, James Poniewozik, declared “the end—or at least the extreme makeover—of the mass-media audience” in 2003 in a story titled “Has the Mainstream Run Dry?”

In a fragmented world where news junkies tend to break down along partisan lines, Stengel starts to sound like Barack Obama trying to hold the middle ground. “Our readers live in red and blue states, they’re Republican and Democrat, they’re rural and urban,” says Stengel. “We mirror the demographics of America as a whole. The New York Times talks to people who already agree with all the things in the New York Times. I would argue that the bar for us is higher because we have a diverse audience. We’re not preaching to the converted.”

Despite distancing Time from the Times, Stengel hasn’t been shy about trying to steal its columnists away, including his old friend Maureen Dowd and Times foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman. He also tried to get Times legal reporter Adam Liptak and Peter Boyer of The New Yorker. Problem is, none of them wants to work for Time. “Are they waiting to see what I’m going to do?” he asks. “Absolutely they’re waiting. But as we go forward, I think some will.”

Few—perhaps not even Stengel himself—can clearly see the magazine that will emerge. In the recent round of layoffs, a large part of Time’s old reporting structure was eliminated. Today, in the southwest corner of the 24th floor, under a set of clocks representing different time zones, the news desk that once received 24-hour reports from around the world is all but gone. Many of the bureaus represented by the clocks—Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris—have either disappeared or been downsized. And some inside Time worry that Stengel’s plan to use “laptop journalists” to travel around to news events—the magazine still has 30 international correspondents—won’t be enough.

“When the shit hits the fan and New Orleans is washed away or a plane hits a building, Time’s always been able to rear up and do amazing work,” says one Time staffer. “Those have been the moments that really counted the most. Does Stengel still want to do that? He hasn’t been tested on that level.”


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