Thursday, May 18, 2006

Time Magazine Gets A New ME, Amidst Sliding Circulation

Time magazine has some troubles, and it is getting a new managing editor, with Richard Stengel replacing Jim Kelly. The move comes as Time circulation has slid from 4.6 million down to about 4 million.

At the same time, it's revealed in today's New York Times that Time's superb investigative reporters, Donald Barlett and James Steele, are leaving the magazine due to what is called a budget squeeze. This, I think, is a serious mistake, since some of Time's best reports have been written by that duo.

Time does some things very well, such as its coverage in Iraq and the Middle East in general, and this week's excellent article on crime in New Orleans.

But I believe the overall product has tended to slip into too much gadgetry in recent years. Specifically, the magazine's editors are overly fond of these special issues, featuring celebrity essays on the most 100 influential people, and so forth. These essays are overly laudatory and I, frankly, am not fond of such lists, especially since they seem to change most names every year.

Right now, I'm taking less time to read Time than I used to. The articles are often less interesting toward the second half of the magazine, and there's entirely too much enthusiasm about business, businessmen and new Internet developments. Contrast, Time's approach to business with the more skeptical New York Times Business section, and you can see what I'm talking about. The L.A. Times business section runs well behind both, I have to say.

Under Kelly, managing editor for the last five years, Time's Person of the Year feature at the end of the year has deteriorated, moving away from people who had the most impact during the year, to pie-in-the-sky choices such as Bill Gates and Bono, this past year. Arab terrorists, who have made the world stand on end, have not cracked this devotion to business leaders that fit the editors' stereotypes. Maybe, the overall picture is too grim for the editors to stomach.

Of course, it should be conceded, the circulation losses, combined with advertising losses, may simply reflect less enthusiasm for the mainstream media on the part of readers who more and more use the Internet. The NYT article says use of the Time Web site has increased by a third in the last year. In my own case, though, I never go to the Time Web site. I much prefer reading what they have to say in the actual magazine.

The new managing editor comes out of the Web site management. Maybe, he will be more imaginative than the old one, and maybe even harder-nosed. The magazine could stand it. I daresay that Time has never recovered from the death of Henry Luce, a genius who knew what the public wanted. Subsequent heads of Time, Inc. have too often been clueless about what the reading public wants.

In the meantime, Time is touting prizes it has won for best magazine over 2 million circulation. These prizes cannot, however, overcome the impression that the magazine is not what it once was in important respects. And since the subscription price has risen steadily, the decline in circulation is really not surprising.

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