Special Report: 'Time' proves pundits wrong

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It was a gray February afternoon at Time, but everyone seemed to be sporting a tan and a golden smile.

And why not? Returning from days of oiling their backs and dancing in hula skirts in Maui, staffers had plenty to glow about. Only five years ago, Time executives worried they would be nursing the newsweekly into old age. Instead, the publication has witnessed a growth spurt that has quadrupled profits during that period.

Time closed the end of the century with a robust ad page gain of 10.6% over the previous year and produced a ballyhooed issue with a "Person of the Century" cover story, honoring Albert Einstein. But above all, 1999 marks the year that most clearly reflects the vision of its managing editor, Walter Isaacson. His goal is described as nothing short of reinventing the newsmagazine for the next century.

CONTENT SHIFTS

Now, instead of merely rehashing the news of the week, Time aims to provide content on topics that affect readers' everyday lives.

While sipping tea in his corner office on the 27th floor of the Time & Life Building, his gray pinstriped suit jacket off and tie long undone, the 45-year-old Mr. Isaacson explains how Time has shifted its news priorities from Washington and politics to the everyday issues discussed at the dinner table.

"News is about exploring what videogames your children play, whether to get laser eye surgery or what to do with aging parents," he says.

And so, the everyday news barometer of 1999 brought the Time reader cover stories on everything from low carbohydrate diets to the phenomenon of the Harry Potter books. Mr. Isaacson's Time personalizes the news, disseminating it via a narrative approach.

"Telling a tale makes the news more personal, more real, a story with fascinating characters that people can talk about [while] sitting on their front porch," says Mr. Isaacson. The porch reference and his slight Southern drawl are a throwback to his days growing up in New Orleans.

Mr. Isaacson says one of the highlights of 1999 was a touching story written by Time's Los Angeles correspondent, Cathy Booth, about visiting her father in a nursing home.

In another highlight, Time looked back at the May tragedy at Columbine High School in the Dec. 20 issue. It sent a team of reporters to the school for six weeks. The result was an exclusive report, "The Columbine Tapes." The issue revealed tapes made by the killers before their rampage. Time sold a whopping 330,000 copies on the newsstand, a close second to the 350,000 newsstand copies of the "Person of the Century" issue.

Newsstand sales overall were up 36.8% in 1999, though that sizable uptick was partly attributable to news coverage of the tragic death of John F. Kennedy Jr. The July 26 issue sold 1.3 million copies at the newsstands.

CHANGE IN QUALITY

In a fairly flat category, Time's overall circulation was up 1.5% to 4.1 million for the second half of 1999 compared with about 4 million for the same period in 1998, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for the second half of 1999.

For the same time period, Newsweek dropped 0.2% to 3.1 million and U.S. News & World Report increased 0.7% to 2.2 million.

But the difference in Time's circulation quality today vs. only a few years ago has been the key to its financial success. It now edits news packages to attract various demographic groups and markets the groups to advertisers via its "cluster marketing strategy."

"Time can compete with business books, Family Fun, Family Computing and Modern Maturity," explains magazine President Bruce Hallett.

Time Inc. CEO Don Logan recruited Mr. Hallett in 1995 after his successful turn running Who Weekly, People's Australian title. That same year, Mr. Isaacson took the post of managing editor.

Last year, Ed McCarrick was named publisher, succeeding Jack Haire, who moved to president of Fortune Group. Mr. McCarrick switched from publisher of Life.

Mr. Hallett reexamined Time's circulation and advertising sales and developed a marketing strategy to extract specific demographic groups from its national 4 million rate base. The new strategy goes beyond the title's demographically specific efforts of the past.

Now advertisers can reach a reader group through specific sales packages: Time Business, 1.8 million; Time Top Management, 800,000; Time Gold (mature audiences) 1 million; Time Women, 975,000; Time Digital, 1 million; Time Families, 1 million; and Time Youth, 3 million.

Taken a step further, through its selective binding, the publication offers readers and advertisers select editions with editorial specific to their interests. Those include Time Business, Time Families and Time Gold. Clients, says Steve Greenberger, senior VP-director of print media at New York-based Grey Advertising's MediaCom, "love to have the option of buying to a specific demographic."

The strategy shifted the magazine's editorial thrust from a general-interest newsweekly to a publication with specific sections. For example, the new format includes "Personal Time," a selection of columns on family, health, money and technology.

YOUNG WRITERS ADDED

To ensure that Time doesn't just appeal to fortysomethings, which it does through its "Personal Time" columns and some special reports, Mr. Isaacson has added young writers to the fold. The new batch includes 28-year-old humorist Joel Stein, who has written about everything from rich kid movie producers at the Sundance Film Festival to why he wants to wax his hirsute body.

Time's spin-off titles have allowed the newsweekly to expand its advertising base to new categories. They include 5-year-old Time Digital, a technology title that now publishes monthly and Time for Kids. Time Large Edition, launched this year in a nod to its aging readers, delivers 85% of the newsweekly's content in large type.

Time landed new business from advertisers such as Kraft Foods' Grape Nuts cereal and Hasbro's G.I. Joe action figure in 1999. It also bolstered existing business with such companies as Hewlett-Packard Co., increasing ad spending 65%; Apple Computer, up 41%; and Pfizer, up 35%.

LIKES FIT WITH AOL

Meanwhile, America Online's merger with Time Warner should fit right in to Mr. Isaacson's future goals for the weekly.

"I don't know about AOL, but I can say this: It's a great fit, and I'm looking forward to working with them." A stint as Time's new media editor prior to his appointment to managing editor helped shape Mr. Isaacson's views on how best to integrate the Web into the Time brand.

Pathfinder, Time Inc.'s initial portal to its magazines on the Web, is being phased out. Now, individual publications control their own sites. For example, Time offers Time.com. The site includes Time Daily.

"The Internet has made us more engaged, curious and connected about news. It's not the way it was when news was about the world far away. It's not about what goes on in foreign ministries, but what happens in our schools, our communities, our families," Mr. Isaacson says, once again defining why Time has shifted its own editorial strategy.

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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