I can remember one offsite in Connecticut where we looked at financials that were showing steady declines in net income for the brand. By 2005 the magazine's circulation was just beneath 4 million subscribers and it averaged around 150,000 copies per week sold on the newsstand, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC). Today Time averages less than 60,000 copies per issue on the newsstand, its subscriber base is down around 3.2 million, and ad dollars have taken a beating in print.
It's hard to image that there will be much left of the brand 36 months from now.
The New Math: More Readers, Less Money
The web is deceiving. It would seem to be a massively open and democratic system that would allow a brand like Time to reach everyone and reduce its costs along the way. But we're learning that it's more expensive and more difficult to build a distinctive relationship with an audience online. And it requires a very different approach to the business; it forces us to be much more strategic - to put finite resources against the goal of making something that no one else can make. Crafting a brilliant strategy of course is no sure bet. As A.G.Lafley and Roger Martin state in their new book Playing to Win (full disclosure: Harvard Business Review Press published it) strategy is just a way to "shorten your odds". For Time, a strategic approach might have led to a rethink of who its audience could be and what purpose its editorial served in a world plagued by information overload.
The funny thing is, Time co-founder Henry Luce had started out in the 1920s with a clear and focused vision of who his audience was and how the magazine would serve them: Time was for the busy man who needed to digest the week's news in about an hour. Luce was more elitist than populist -- the second magazine he started, Fortune, was originally an expensive, lavish product aimed at the 1%. But the huge success of Luce's third big bet -- the ultra-mass-market Life -- and the continued growth of Time eventually changed the emphasis at Luce's company and at Time in particular. The focus on the who and what of Time got lost - or bogged down in endless internal debates.
When the digital era arrived, the inevitable fragmentation of media made it virtually impossible for Time to hold onto its massive audience, but the enterprise never seemed to get that fact. Instead, it tried to bulk up on pageviews, open up its archive (which has since gone behind a wall) and go with the bigger-is-better approach. But in a world where CNN's 40 million unique visitors is small compared to Google's 170 million, the get-big-fast approach is a tough road, and advertisers can find cheaper rates and more effective outlets fairly easily.
For example, Google, which delivers a massive audience, but does so on an individualized level -- one search at a time -- that advertisers find far more appealing. At one point, Time probably could have invested in building a much deeper relationship with its core readers digitally. But that would have meant shedding many of the old ways of doing things that simply no longer created value. Easier said than done. Any one running a business for more than ten seconds knows how difficult it can be to make those sorts of hard choices.