About Time

Of course, we feel bad for the 289 people who lost their jobs at Time Inc. yesterday, but the place was — and always has been — incredibly inefficient.

When I went to People for a tryout in the ’80s, they were dubious: We don’t hire newspaper people, they said with a sneer. But they gave me a shot. The first day, I was given 30 pages of correspondents’ notes and wrote a 400-word story in the morning. Piece of cake. I was a newspaper rewriteman used to writing a handful of stories a day and then a columnist writing 1,500 words a day, six days a week. I asked for the next story. They had nothing. For five days straight, it was the same tale. At the end of the week, they offered me the job. But one of the old hands from Time Inc. pulled me aside and growled, “Don’t ever do that again.” I couldn’t figure out what he was telling me until I arrived and sat in a meeting of writers with then-Managing Editor Pat Ryan as she told them, “Listen, people we really need to improve productivity; I expect you all to get up to writing one story a week.”

Mind you, once reported by a cadre of correspondents and written by a staff writer in New York, it was edited (read: rewritten) by a senior editor and edited (yes, rewritten), by an assistant managing editor, and then edited (and, with surprising freqency, rewritten) by the managing editor. And then the research came along to try to correct all the errors this process inserted in the story. (This is how People famous declared Abe Vigoda dead; he was next see in an ad in Variety holding up a copy of that magazine while sitting up in a coffin.) And alongside all this, there were photo researchers and editors and layout artists and production people galore — all to perfect that 400-word tome about some small moment in life. Oh, and to make sure they had the very best 400-word celebrity haiku, they “slashed” two to four stories for every slot in the magazine — that is, they went through this entire process for at least twice as many stories as would actually be printed.

I left people in the late ’80s to start Entertainment Weekly (where I proudly started a weekly magazine with a total edit staff of 60 — fewer editorial staffers than any monthly magazine in the company). I returned about a year ago to talk to the staff about blogs and I was gobsmacked at how huge it had grown: One floor had become two; the place was jammed with people, all doing essentially the same job we had done 20 years before, quite inefficiently, with too many people even then.

So it’s hard to imagine that the layoffs will hurt. They will change the tone of the magazines as stories are now to be reported, written, and researched by single authors. The point of that entire Time Inc. system was to homogenize the style, to make it all sound like Time or People, no matter who wrote it. But now Rick Stengel, ME of Time, is filling the book with columnists: with distinct voices. And People is closing bureaus filled with full-time reporters (rather than writers).

But looming over all this is the fate of magazine, especially the newsmagazine. I’ve been arguing that magazines with communities can be in good shape if they learn to enable those communities to share their knowledge and passions — and that will happen online, not in print. But I also argued that general-interest magazines could be doomed in the age of the mass of niches.

  • Mumblix Grumph

    Is this why so many MSM media people are big government Democrats? It is the only environment to which they can relate?

    One story per week! Damn, that hardly leaves time for 3 hour lunches and water cooler chit chat.

  • Dan Egger

    Wow, I always thought those would be great jobs.

    I worked in the videogame magazine business and we typically had between 4 and 5 editorial staffers per monthly magazine. (Official Xbox Magazine, PC Gamer, PlayStation Magazine, etc.) Of course we also used about half a dozen freelancers each month, but the vast majority of the magazine was in the hands of the main editorial staff.

    We never won any Pulitzers, but we never missed a ship date.

    Still, the one article per week assignment sounds like a lazy writer’s (me!) dream.

  • http://marginalizingmorons.blogspot.com/ CaptiousNut

    Those laid off are lucky.

    They probably got at least 3 months severance pay and are re-entering a very strong labor market in Manhattan.

    And they got a helpful signal to rejigger their careers.

  • W.T. Dowell

    The original idea behind TIME was not a bad one. It was essentially to deploy a battalion of crack reporters stationed around the world, and to see if they could come up with added value that the wires and everyone else had missed. Luce’s TIME may not have been that great, but the magazine achieved real power under Henry Grunwald, probably its greatest editor. It was an international platform of unprecedented power at a time when the U.S. was still regarded as a benevolent force. It is an irony that TIME’s destruction came partly from People, a magazine that long ago invaded the darker realms previously inhabited by the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids. Publishing the combination of dolled up press releases from publicity hungry starlets and otherwise engaging in unrestrained vulgarity cost People a fraction of what serious reporting demanded in TIME. Eventually, People’s financial success –even though based on a visit to the dark side–made its editors and publishing folk look more successful in pure business terms than their colleagues. They were soon dispatched to TIME to produce similar profits. With little or no idea of what TIME was about, they cut the ground out from under the magazine. It became obvious years ago that the corporation wanted to put its money into ventures that were likely to pay more than print. The question was how to kill TIME without being too obvious about it. The solution was to make it irrelevant, which is by and large what they accomplished. Mainstream American journalism today is largely a matter of repackaging, or rephrasing what other people have produced. TIME’s managers have clearly decided to follow the trend and cheap it out. The wonder is not that TIME’s current management succeeded in destroying what was once the world’s leading news magazine, but that that despite all the damage that was done, it took so long to die.

  • http://craigslistcriticism.blogspot.com Delia

    Jeff,

    I think it really depends on the kind of story: I’d like to think that Time is in a different category than People and Entertainment Weekly, but I could be wrong…

    Delia

    P.S. I *do* wish people writing about craigslist, for instance, would really take their time: do the research and do it well, consult with others and all that good stuff… (you’d think they would be much less likely to fall in all the traps…) D.

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  • penny

    Time and Newsweek are so passe. They hardly exist outside of the dentist’s office anymore. The content is boring, predictable and agenda driven. They feature stories around the superficial MSM news issue of the week. The weekly covers are predictable.

    I’m sure Obama is/will be gracing their covers. He’s shallow. No thinking person would elect someone on such a paltry record in the times we live in. The MSM is shallow. They created him. He’ll fade in due time. Hopefully the insipid MSM, purveyors of fluff, will too.

    The paradigm of carefully selected formulaic content, further dumbed down and sanitized by pc self-censorship that riddles the MSM, by editorial committee is so dated and over.

  • http://www.suryasays.com surya

    Wow. Awesome insight. I had no idea– the market economy at work!

  • http://spaceygreview.blogspot.com/ SpaceyG

    I think Penny is really Rupert Murdoch – in drag as Bill O’Reilly.

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  • Delia

    penny: still, I don’t think they are in the same category with People and Entertainment Weekly… (they at least have to do decent research on the MSM, I would think…) oh, well… no big deal, either way… D.

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  • http://www.petebrush.com pbdotc

    who will all the bloggers link to when time and people are gone?

    I WEEP FOR THE BLOGGERS.

  • Garbanzo

    When I worked for Newsweek just after college in the late ’80s, I was amazed at how little work people had compared to newspaper newsrooms where I had worked (and turning out 1,000+ words a day was not uncommon). Clearly, there are great reporters who can’t write well and great writers who have no reporting skills, but this style of homogenized journalism seemed to replace an immediacy in the story with a false knowing snarkiness (as if some writer sitting in an office on Madison Avenue could get a sense of what was happening in the field). In addition to the inefficiency of editing and readbacks (i.e., you spoke to the reporter and made sure that the writer interpreted the dispatch correctly), I was also amazed at how Newsweek (and later, I discovered, other newsweeklies) lifted reporting, quotes, and research from one another. And while The Times and The Post do employ a bit of “rewrite” to major stories, I think most of their “day of” stories are equal or superior to the newsweeklies (of course, The Times has bloat in a different way with a 1,200 person newsroom and a $200+ million newsgathering budget).

    Still interested to hear anyone’s view on what unions have to do with all this. One word from a friend at Newsweek is that they can’t efficiently restructure without a big knock-down/drag-out with the Guild, and Time Inc. also has representation there. Just look at the Guild talks at The Times (Times: We need to restructure our newsgathering to fit the 21st century. Guild: 1950 work rules are just fine!).

  • http://atlantarofters.blogspot.com The Sanity Inspector

    Just like I used to look at the skin magazines only for the articles, I now only look at the newsmagazines for the photographs.

  • Owen

    This is not truly a surprise to me – I’ve worked at trade and consumer publications – first print, then web, for over 25 years. The more consumer and /or larger the publications got, the more inefficient. I stared in the UK on the largest personal computer monthly – we hit 500 pages per month at times. We had about 8 freelancers. We had five editors and writers. We had two production staff, one admin and shared graphic resources. I was expected to produce about 40,000 words a month – about 3/4 edited and 1/4 written. I was astonished at the staff ‘needed’ when I moved to the US.

    Since then I have worked on publish-as-soon-as-ready, daily, weekly and monthly publications. The most inefficient were the largest but none were as bad as described for People above.

    However, I think the real problem (and it is a problem at a lot of ‘official’ publications) is the indefinite cycle of editing outlined above. Yes, publishing in print can’t really be retracted so you do want an editor – but one good edit is enough. I truly dislike publications that leave no room for the writer’s voice.

  • http://megquinn.blogspot.com Meg Q

    Macleans in Canada has been reinventing itself (successfully, I believe – I actually buy it now, as do other people I know, and their circ figures are going up) by using real writers on interesting topics and featuring some signature columnists. The celebrity crap is limited to an amusing 2-page spread. Shocking, I know.

    No blogger that I know or read links to Time or People. The only time I ever have – or any other blogger I read – was in December when Time so kindly named me “Person of the Year”.

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  • David Zent

    Interesting post, but I am often astonished that writers such as yourself neglect to check their own spelling and grammar, such as is evidenced on this page. It’s a small point, I know, but my mom was an English teacher, and drilled me into checking everything I write, so my eye picks it up unbidden. It’s rampant on the net, especially. My guess is that editors will not go out of business any time soon. Other than that, nice job…

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