'Time Out' owns its market by letting staff own the content

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Last week's regime change at New York was a quiet reminder of the six factors that propelled the shift at the city weekly: a natural generational transition; the trend away from mid-20th century media formats; the resurgence of the once-sleepy New Yorker; the nationalization of The New York Times; the fading importance of the city's alternative press-and, most fundamentally, the rise of Time Out New York.

Derided at its 1995 launch as an inessential import from the clueless U.K., TONY has established itself not only as the city's foremost guide to extra-residential activities, it's become the rising demos' radar of all things hip, phat and cool. Paradoxically, perhaps, this bible of the 20s is overseen by a radiant woman just two years shy of 50, Cyndi Stivers, who credits the magazine's success to her fundamental conviction that she doesn't know what she doesn't know. "If you're trying to get a demo that's younger than you by half, it'd be the stupidest thing in the world to second-guess your staff."

Some of those staff were collected from the various editorial stations at which she had stopped (the New York Post, Daily News Tonight, Soho News, Us, Eastside Express and Premiere) before arriving at TONY. But most were young enough to be her progeny.

"The only way to make listings interesting is to get people who are incredibly obsessed and passionate and knowledgeable about their areas," Ms. Stivers said. "What we could offer is to say to someone, `This is your area. You own it. We won't second guess you.' It's a horrible word, but it's empowering."

"Empowerment" is not a word heard often in journalism, which tends to celebrate managerial divas and dictators. But that's not the only paradox embodied by Ms. Stivers. In charge of a periodical devoted to the city's newest, she can trace her New York lineage back 10 generations, to the family of Peter Stuyvesant. Her career history might lead one to assume that she'd be ornery and independent; spurned by the Columbia Spectator, her college daily, which she recalls as inhospitable to women, she found her way to the newly Murdoch-ized New York Post, where, as one of the few copygirls who could type, she turned herself into a reporter.

But Ms. Stivers credits three former bosses-Anthea Disney, Susan Lyne and Clay Felker, renowned editors all-with teaching her both the business of magazines and the human side of managing young, creative people.

"From the beginning, I told the kids who were joining us, `If we do this right, this will be your showcase." TONY has indeed launched several careers, including those of Elle Girl Editor in Chief Brandon Holley and humorist Joel Stein. "Nobody thought we would make it," she said, "but everybody here felt we were on a mission."

Listings, a mission? That, too, is core to understanding TONY's accomplishments. Consider it a spin on Andy Warhol's tired old saw that in the future, we'll all be famous for 15 minutes. As it's turned out, the major cultural aspiration is to be a critic for 15 minutes. The grand "I" now explicitly permeates the arts and letters: The most fashionable literary format is no longer the novel but the memoir; the Whitney Biennial continues to drench us with social criticism with only the thinnest veneer of vision or craftsmanship. Thus, journalistic fame no longer comes from breaking a story; it comes from breaking an opinion. For an editor, that means accepting what our moms told us way back when: Everyone's entitled to their opinion.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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