Out of Time

David Carr imagines Time Warner without Time Inc. The old magazines are a drag on corporate performance. They have not managed to start new successes. They’ve started selling off their lesser titles. Can a sale of the publishing division be next? Sure, it can. Did it need to be this way? No, it didn’t. But Time Inc., like other magazine companies, never managed to figure out the internet. Oh, they tried. Who can forget — try as they might —

Magazines could have had a unique benefit in the internet if they had thought of themselves not as slick paper but instead of networks of interest and information. The New Yorker is a good illustration: David Remnick et al pick good shit. People like the shit they pick. So they gather around and subscribe. That was as far as the relationship could go in years past. But The New Yorker is more than its content. It is truly a community of smart people, a wise and select crowd, who all like the same shit. And all those people could join in and contribute to the community. Wouldn’t you like to know the books that New Yorker readers are reading? Wouldn’t you be eager to have them recommend articles they’ve read elsewhere? Wouldn’t you enjoy contributing yourself to that exchange? I would. And would this make my relationship with the magazine, its brand, its value, and its community stronger? Yes, it would.

I ran into a few smart magazine executives I respect last week and they are frustrated that magazine brands don’t have greater presences online because they want to build stronger relationships, which will yield better business. Sadly, not many in the business view it this way. They’re still thinking content and control. They’re still thinking centralized. Break out and think distributed and think community and new things become possible.

Newsmagazines are particularly screwed in a world of commodity news (who needs one-size-fits-all Time to give you the news — late — when you have friends to point you to what you really care about?). But even they could have become more than just repositories of content their own staffs created but instead gateways to what larger worlds know.

The strength of these brands is that they had — note the tense — a headstart. They could have used their promotional clout and reputations to enable these communities to form around them. But they didn’t. Too late? Maybe.