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The Time of his Time

Walter Isaacson is reinventing his magazine for an era when the news is dead and presidents don't matter as much as homework.

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I went to hear Time magazine's managing editor, Walter Isaacson, and its legendary presidential correspondent Hugh Sidey on a panel with Henry Kissinger a few weeks ago. The occasion marked the opening of an exhibit of photographs celebrating the American presidency and Time's relationship to it -- one of various events quietly heralding the most successful year in Time's history. Certainly, the panel and exhibit were what a marketer might describe as a snapshot of the Time franchise: proximity to power, indelible images of great events, the best and the brightest journalists. (Staring at me from my bookshelf is Isaacson's memorable biography of Kissinger as well as a 36-year-old copy -- my father's -- of Hugh Sidey's John F. Kennedy, President: A Reporter's Inside Story.)

It would be hard to find a Watergate- or earlier-generation journalist who didn't in some way equate journalism with these presidential images and with the notion that the essence, and certainly the pinnacle, of the profession was to cover Washington and the presidency. (When I went to work as a copyboy at the Times in 1973 on the late shift, you couldn't go home if the president's plane was in the air -- that vigil was a lovely part of the job. Is there anyone still waiting? That would be a poignant sentinel.) But if you look at these photographs and listen to the indefatigable Kissinger, it is clear that the presidential, sweep-of-history Time has been dramatically contracting, and a new Time, concerned with issues like homework ("Too Much!") and genealogy ("How to Search for Your Roots") and blockbuster movies (the Star Wars keepsake issue, which we pore over in our house), is taking its place. Time's beat, in other words, is no longer America-writ-large but the various private preoccupations, emotional and aspirational rather than ideological in nature, of large blocs of Americans who don't much relate to great events or great men.

The Time cover might be the death of news: WHY AMERICANS DON'T CARE ABOUT THE BIG STUFF ANYMORE.

Then JFK Jr. was killed. For a day or so, this briefly felt like real news, and I was relieved not to have expressed the preceding idea. But midway through the first week, it was pretty clear not only that there was little news here but that it was a compelling story precisely because it lacked traditional news value: It wasn't about power or politics. Our connection to him -- figurative as well as literal (if also tangential) -- became the story. It was all about what people felt, whether profoundly or sentimentally. It was a classic human-interest story.

As it happens, human interest is a subgenre of journalism that classic trench-coat journalists do not by temperament and snobbery customarily engage in -- that was the subtext of the ensuing heaps of op-ed opprobrium. This wasn't serious stuff; it wasn't of consequence. It wasn't front-page.

The New York Times, home of the true Burberry, even chose to make something of a stand on the issue. Insisting on its duty (really its franchise) to rank the overall importance of events, it stubbornly refused to lead with the story on any day. The rollout of concern over the Kennedy story was pretty consistent with the Monica-Di-O.J.-Columbine umbrage: Editorialists, columnists, and Sunday-morning commentators were intent on defining what is acceptable media behavior while, spreading out, everywhere, uncontrollably, there was the bad behavior. Isaacson himself became the particular target for a variety of columnists who took deep offense at his sappy editor's letter in Time's first-week JFK Jr. issue and what Frank Rich in the Times and Ellen Warren in the Chicago Tribune characterized as his self-serving evocation of his relationship with Kennedy.

If you paid attention to the various press columnists (all, at least in their hearts, right-thinking trench-coat journalists), you might be tempted to conclude that the consensus on the part of any journo who had not sold out was that the Kennedy coverage was a professional low point. If great events make great men (and great journalists), we were all sorely wanting for greatness here.

But if, on the other hand, journalism has become something else, an airing of heretofore personal concerns, an expression of mood and yearnings and something that is called community (oh, retch), then it seems like Isaacson was on target. And that the lashing we were giving ourselves over the handling of the Kennedy story was really a delayed reaction to a massive change in what we now accept as front-page, cover-story news. Practically speaking, for every journalist (or what used to be called serious journalists), all this -- the emotional dramas along with the whole range of too-much-homework stories that have challenged the concerns of serious men of affairs -- represents the great adjustment.

After all, the headline form itself is a relic -- we know what's happening pretty much the moment it happens (e-mail, beeper, Web, CNN). Washington's status as the news capital is heading the way of Detroit's status as a center of economic strength. The news business, which was once dominated by a small circle of players, is now a competitive free-for-all. Add to that the demographic revolution: Everybody has his or her own socioeconomic, psychographic, ethnic-gender-generational view of what's news. (A young editor at Time has been circulating a proposal to create an under-40 "information brand" -- he carefully distinguishes between magazine and brand -- that stands for being well-informed. Younger people see news differently, they take it in differently, he says.)


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