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Taking the Time out of Time Warner

Nobody wants Time magazine. That’s what seems to be emerging from talks between the magazine’s current publisher Time Warner and Meredith, an Iowa-based publisher of magazines aimed mostly at women in the Midwest. The money losing newsweekly used to be the most important magazine in America; under the leadership of its founder Henry Luce, Time reigned for decades as the magazine that, love it or loathe it, everyone in America read.

These days nobody seems to pay it much attention and with subscriptions flat and ad revenue down it is increasingly difficult to see what the publication is for. In Luce’s day the magazine was a kind of pre-internet news aggregator. Its writers and editors looked over newspapers and magazines from all over the world, selected what they thought the key news stories were, and condensed and rewrote them in the magazine’s punchy style. It was a simple and brilliant idea and in the days before network television news and national editions of major newspapers. It made Time the most important publication in the United States, and gave it the power to define the national conversation among educated news readers.

But Time has been floundering for a long time now. National television newscasts undermined its ability to set the national news agenda. The success of national newspapers freed educated people in smaller cities and towns from dependence on newsweeklies for serious national and international news. Meanwhile, its writers and editors wanted to move up the food chain, shunning the humble role of aggregation in order to break news, write under their own bylines, and opine. As the magazine’s influence waned, it pitched itself as a more consumer-oriented publication but lost its edge in the news business without really finding a new niche. The Economist is an infinitely better newsweekly; Time has largely disappeared from the elite conversation without finding a secure home in the mass market. The brutal economics of publishing in the age of the internet haven’t been kind to this legacy title. Despite years of cuts its cost structure reflects the entitled media culture of past decades. Without a clear mission and without a revenue base, it is hard to see why anybody would want it.

The recent death of arch rival Newsweek probably helped make the unthinkable thinkable at Time Warner. The original company was built on Time magazine as Luce’s publishing empire grew, and there was a sentimental attachment both to the title and to the memory of the vital national role the magazine once played. But the end of Newsweek‘s print life makes the end of Time that much more thinkable, and there is less and less room for nostalgia in the publishing world. As an unnamed source in the negotiations (in the above-linked article) said: “In a declining business, selling today is always better than selling tomorrow.”

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