Running Out of TIME: The Slow, Sad Demise of a Great American Magazine

The weekly was among the first to invest heavily in the Internet. So how come Time.com never figured it out?
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Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 1.28.51 PM.pngFourteen years ago, on Time.com [The Wayback Machine]

I can still remember how jealous I felt. It was the mid-1990s, and I was a reporter at Inc. magazine in Boston. At Inc., we had just convinced our owner to cough up a few dollars for me and one other editor to launch Inc.com -- in our spare time. But here I was, high above the ground in a mid-town skyscraper that Henry Luce built, and a fellow by the name of Bruce Judson was about to show me Time Warner's $100-million investment in a new media division. The company was on the cusp of launching a massive walled garden that would be the future of digital media and house more than 80 prolific Time Inc. brands. It was to be called Pathfinder, and its launch would include a digital graphic novel, unpublished photos from Entertainment Weekly, and Time Daily for breaking news.

Laugh all you want. But remember this was years before Google. Netscape had only recently launched, and AOL was just beginning its rise. There was no Internet bubble.

In short, there wasn't much competition for magazines, and Time Inc. was still a thriving media juggernaut. The company boasted a slew of profitable titles, and some -- namely People and Sports Illustrated -- were reeling in boatloads of cash for the company. They were also known for sticking with investments that weren't perfect right out of the gate. Titles like Entertainment Weekly could bump along at first because Time Inc. had the capital and commitment to stick with these sorts of rough beginnings and turn them into successes.

Plus, Time Inc. was brimming with talent. Don Logan was the much beloved CEO who came from the Southern Living Corporation in the early 1990s; underneath him was a house of heavyweight writers and editors such as Walter Isaacson and Dan Okrent. It could even attract technology talent as well as sales-force superstars like Jack Haire. Even though the economy wasn't sizzling back then, Time Inc. was in a classic position of strength and ready to flex its muscles in the new digital world -- well ahead of the pack.

But in spite of the early lead, the company has always appeared to be more victim of the web than vanquisher. Why has it never been able to fully reach its potential online? And more specifically why wasn't the web an amazing opportunity for Time magazine in particular to grow the brand around the world? It's a baffling question on many levels: Not only was Time among the first magazines online, but it was also constantly innovating with blogs, video and graphic animation - and much more. On the business side, Time pushed forward with huge interactive sponsorship such as a promotion that allowed pedestrians in Times Square to snap a photo of themselves that would appear simultaneously on a giant billboard and Time.com as Person of the Year, brought to you by Chrysler.

Gimmicky, yes. But innovative nonetheless.

36 Months
The newsweekly's long slide has been blamed on pretty much everything from lack of investment to the AOL merger. And of course there's the notion that the newsweekly category itself is simply no longer viable--that in the age of the Internet, the weekly rhythm is just too long. But then why the success of The Week or the Economist? For Time, the challenge wasn't just the weekly print cycle; it was the weekly print cycle plus a crushing load of fixed costs. It's expensive to support a model that demands reporters around the world, big name columnists, and massive distribution. The high costs means that there's virtually no room for Time to stumble.

Unfortunately, the brand would fall hard. I joined Time magazine in the summer of 2002 just after the bursting of the dot-com bubble. The largest project during my tenure as editor and general manager of Time.com was to digitize the entire archive going back to March of 1923 - which pushed me deep into Time magazine lore. I tracked the early days when the magazine first took flight to the WWII era when Time could sell more than 400,000 copies in a week even with some little-known Italian general on the cover.

It kept on growing after that. At its zenith the brand could reach more than 20 million people around the world each week. Time practically defined what it meant to be mass media. It was a brand for pretty much everybody. Television and then cable news (CNN in particular) eventually began to chip away at its position, and Time went though struggles and repeated attempts at reinvention through the years. But it took the arrival of the Internet to truly endanger it.

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Joshua Macht is the Group Publisher for the Harvard Business Review Group. He was editor and general manager of TIME.com from 2002-2006.

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