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‘Time’ is a magazine that waits for no man

In the introduction to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, the former South African president speaks of his deep gratitude to Richard Stengel for his efforts in editing, revising and writing parts of the 630-page opus. “I recall with fondness our early morning walks in Transkei and the many hours of interviews in Johannesburg,” says Mr Mandela of the American.

Sitting in the Thames Foyer of the Savoy Hotel, where Noel Coward once performed and Caruso once sang, Stengel, who now edits Time magazine, enthuses over Mandela’s newly-unveiled statue in Trafalgar Square. “I’m sure he’s tickled by [the statue]. He’s a huge Anglophile. He was reading Dickens [when he was young] and it felt contemporary to him. He’s a huge cricket and rugby fan. I have a picture of him riding in a carriage with the Queen and he is just beaming.”

Stengel has come to London to honour other international figures, the individuals the title considers to have done most in the past year to protect the planet, the “Heroes of the Environment”. He was brought back to Time last year in its most senior editorial role and promptly introduced a far-reaching and controversial programme of change, refusing to rest on the innumerable laurels acquired by the 84-year-old title. He shows no deference to the “funny model” that was traditionally used to create the famous weekly publication.

“When Time was originally written – when (Henry) Luce created it – it was a bunch of snarky Ivy League smart alecs in an office in New York re-writing the news for people that lived in the Midwest. There weren’t any correspondents. It was done like that for years. As the magazine became more profitable, in the Fifties and Sixties, they started hiring correspondents, but they would file to New York and the same Ivy League smart alecs would rewrite it.”

As a long-standing Time journalist who had taken time out from his career at the magazine to write speeches for presidential candidate Bill Bradley and then to run the National Constitution Center, a Philadelphia-based think tank, he says he was able to identify the weaknesses as well as the strengths of this iconic media brand as it comes to terms with the digital era. “As a student of revolutionaries, [I know that] the irony of revolutions is that they tend to come from the inside and one of the reasons I came back … was that I was familiar with the machinery and the people and yet I was an outsider at the same time.”

His re-structuring was painful (rival publications gleefully reported a “bloodbath” as bureaux were closed in Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles and dozens of editorial staff were released), but Stengel believes his changes have given Time a more distinctive voice and a greater relevance both in its print and online formats. So, gone is the Monday publication day, gone are the composite articles of multiple contributors, and gone are the New York re-writes that were intended to make pieces from far-flung correspondents more accessible to domestic readers.

“I’ve encouraged people to write with more voice and have a point of view and the group journalism idea that had characterised Time for so many years is mostly gone,” he says. “The old model was a bunch of people filing and one person writing it in New York. We didn’t have by-lines. I really think people want a voice, a point of view. I’ve always found it frustrating that we would have our Pentagon correspondent – who is steeped in military affairs and talks to all the generals [yet] he would have to write this mealy-mouthed ‘on the one hand and on the other’ [copy] and I would be thinking as a reader ‘Jeez, this guy’s an expert, tell me what you think about it!’” Though Time has fewer writers, the managing editor compares himself to a successful baseball coach with “the best people at each position”, each with a bigger profile. That includes himself, who recently filed an outspoken cover story on the case for American national service.

The switch to Friday publication was driven by the pressure on readers during the week, meaning the magazine could be stale by the time they sat down with it. “Let’s get the bread when it’s freshly baked and they want to read it,” says the managing editor. “The old rhythm was not for the readers but for the journalists. We were backward looking and retrospective.”

In the age of the blogger, journalists must look to the future when analysing news. “That original notion of Time was really just a recapitulation of the week’s news. To me that notion is pretty much gone in the age of the Internet where what was classically called ‘news’, whatever the heck that is, has become a commodity. It’s what you can add to what people already know, putting it in context, giving it perspective, amplifying it, giving it depth.”

He wants Time itself to move away from the idea of being a decentralized title with different covers for different global regions to one that offers international readers an American perspective. “They want to get a sense of what the heck are those guys thinking about,” says Stengel. “I do want us to speak more with a single voice and to leverage that voice.”

Time is benefiting from a growing interest in foreign affairs among younger generations of Americans. “One of the unintended consequences of 9/11 has been to make Americans, who have traditionally been pretty insular, realise that we are part of the world. Young people are really interested in international news in a way that probably wasn’t true a generation ago, and they’re interested not just in war and terrorism but in what life is like in different places.”

He acknowledges that his competition is not just other news magazines but any entertainment, “a soccer game or the movies or watching television”, and he is developing with the philosophy that the online audience might be very different to that which subscribes to the print offering. “You take the DNA for the original Time and then you grow it up in a different Petri dish which is online, and it becomes something new yet still has the integrity of what we’ve always done. It doesn’t bother me if somebody discovers and has never read the magazine.”

Nevertheless, Time staff must file for both audiences, with carrying 15-20 new stories a day, as well as breaking news from CNN. “Ten years from now the idea that somebody writes for the magazine and not for the website will be crazy. So you can’t drive and listen to the radio at the same time?”

Stengel has cut the rate base (the circulation guaranteed to advertisers) from 4m to 3.25m, which has again been interpreted as a sign that Time is losing influence, though the managing editor claims he is reducing giveaways to give his numbers a greater integrity.

Relaxed and firmly upbeat, Mandela’s friend is excited by the big picture. “This is the greatest information revolution in history. There’s a kid growing up in Zanzibar who can access every book written before 1500 on the British Museum website – that’s a great thing not only for media but for humanity.”

Date posted: November 12, 2007 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 357