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.