Friday, February 29, 2008

Editor of TIME at Columbia J-School

Richard Stengel, the editor of Time magazine spoke at Columbia Journalism School on 21 February. I should have posted on Stengel last week but decided not to because (a) traffic on the George Washington bridge kept me from hearing the first half hour of his presentation, and (b) I grew up in Calcutta reading Time, and wanted time to look at some recent issues of the magazine.

In Calcutta, Time was my link to the outside world; Indian magazines were mostly blind to international affairs or deadly dull in their coverage (still true, unfortunately, but that's another story). Nothing else that I read, which included Life, Reader's Digest, Scientific American and an endless supply of comics, conveyed Time's serious sense of editorial mission; its weekly dose of strongly opinionated journalism, irritating in its occasional scathing anti-Indian bias, excellent in its witty film and book reviews, gave me a sense of being in a larger loop than any Calcutta had to offer. It came as a shock, in my final year at high school, to learn from a California hippie en route to Kathmandu that Time was a "joke;" that it was read only by "blue haired karmies."

The magazine still has a "huge audience," Stengel was saying as I arrived. He is an animated and engaging speaker, a journalist who has stepped away from his profession occasionally, to manage a museum, run a presidential campaign. He was a Rhodes Scholar; is obviously smart and savvy.

But Time is losing circulation; down from 4.1 million in 2002 to 3.4 million "paid and verified" subscribers in 2007. Advertisers pay for a readership of over 20 million; each copy sold has multiple readers.

Answering a question about editorial bias, Stengel says Time reporters are asked to be assertive, to make informed assessments, not to present readers with articles that say "on the one hand this, on the other hand that." Informed assessments are not "opinion" in his view. "Bush is an asshole is an opinion, though some might say it's a fact." Time no longer snuck in opinion with questions on the cover like the famous Is Dole too old? It tried to make sense of the world; it had a "bias in favor of excellence" and that was not necessarily political. In the latest issue, he says. "I have an editorial asking if it is appropriate for publications to endorse political candidates."

Victor Navasky, the moderator of the Delacorte Lectures on magazine journalism, asks why Stengel thinks focus groups are useful. It came from managing Bill Bradley's presidential campaign, Stengel says. People are honest in focus groups; they say what they really think. Print journalism needed that kind of feedback; unlike online journalism, it had no continuous feedback, no way of knowing how many hits you get, at what time, which pages are read, for how long. A student comes to the mike to say that focus groups cannot provide "cutting edge" information, and that perhaps political endorsements are a useful measure of "transparency," letting readers know of existing editorial preferences.

What should newspapers do in the age of the Internet? Be "hyper local. Do what you do best and link to the rest." Also, be more like magazines in the use of photographs, bring in context on day one, rather than report on day one and provide context on day two. That was the only way to compete with 24/7 online reporting.

He thinks the life expectancy of print publications is directly proportional to their frequency: the future of dailies is more clouded than that of weekly and monthly magazines. The less frequent publications can provide both a wider context and a "pleasurable" experience; their "physicality" is important. Time did photo essays on a regular basis.

Responding to another question he said it was "crazy" to think of web publications as ephemeral; what you wrote stayed up for ever and was far more accessible than anything in print.

Was Time fact-checked? He'd got rid of the fact-checkers after he found they considered factual anything that appeared in books. Books were the least fact-checked source of information, but they had been given the most credibility.

Time also seems to have jettisoned copy editors.

The issue Stengel brought along for J-School students has a cover story on George Clooney. It is by an all too obviously star-struck Joel Stein, who asked the actor to dinner and was thrown for a loop by his acceptance. Not only does George come to dinner in jeans, he goes into the kitchen, stirrs the bacon on the stove top, "grabs a string bean from the pot and eats it." When Stein leaves the table to check on the lamb, "he puts extra bacon on my pasta." He also fixes an errant alarm and sits around putting away a couple of bottles of wine. "It's becoming clear to me already that somehow this guy, even in my house, really is a movie star," Stein writes giddily. "Maybe the only one we have now." The cover declares that to be a fact in heavy type next to Clooney's friendly face: "The Last Movie Star."

Stein's fan magazine piece does not ask an obvious, if slightly unfriendly journalistic question: if the actor's sudden concern for Darfur is a step towards a political future a la Ronald Reagan. There is nothing even vaguely critical in the article, not even the mundane detail that Clooney has a hundred leather jackets by the same designer. (That is in Time's ad laden Spring fashion Supplement.)

Another story in the issue is by Bob Geldof, traveling with George Bush in Africa. It's titled The Healer and comes with the following editorial blurb: "On assignment for Time, musician and humanitarian Bob Geldof reports on the presidential trip to Africa -- and why the continent's rebirth is the Bush Administration's greatest achievement." The text is even more blurby (albeit from the Amrita Bazaar Patrika): "Africa is the only continent yet to be built. It will be here that some of the great politics of our century will play themselves out. It's a continent of some 900 million potential produceres and consumers. There are more languages and cultural diversity in Africa than almost anywhere else. Many of the great rivers and resources on the planet are here."

Then there is a page of medical news from CNN's earnest MD in residence, Sanjay Gupta. His easy television style translates into print flab; the piece begins: "As a doctor, I can give you a lot of useful advice about how to get healthy and stay that way, but one thing you don't need me to tell you is that exercise is good for you. By this point, it's not news to anyone that staying active can benefit the heart, the waistline, even the mind."

There is alarming turgidity in political pieces too. A "Briefing" by Michael Grunwald on Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia begins with the slack-jawed: "It's hard to keep track of the Balkans, with all those disputed borders, ethnic hatreds and separatist movements." It goes into a Cold War time-warp with: "The modern world isn't divided between capitalism and communism; it's divided in part between nations done dealing with their secessionists and those still fighting." That leads into: "Sri Lanka sided with Serbia, mindful of its Tamil rebels. Even Spain opposed Kosovo's claim as a precedent that could threaten Madrid's sovereignty by encouraging separatists. What's the joke about putting all your Basques in one exit? Still, Kosovo is no joke because instability in the Balkans tends to spread." Grunwald concludes with this non sequitur: "The world, once again, is taking sides. There's a reason they call it Balkanization."

To top it all, there are no book reviews in the issue.

I can see why the blue haired karmies have been canceling their subscriptions.

[Disclosure: in my continuing effort to win friends and influence people, I have sent in a query asking if Time would like me for a correspondent at the UN. I am not waiting to exhale.]

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