When Time magazine put Latin pop sensation Ricky Martin on the front cover a few weeks ago, you could almost hear founders Henry R.Luce and Briton Hadden turning in their graves. Puerto Rican singers were not exactly what the two Yale classmates envisaged when they first published the weekly news magazine back in 1923.
A lot can change in 76 years, and Time's survival has depended on staying in touch with reader's interests. Over the last year, Time has run cover stories headlining everything from Starr War (on the Lewinsky scandal) to Star Wars (the Lucas film series), just to prove how close to the cultural zeitgeist it is.
According to Priya Narang, SVP/media director at advertising agency, DeWitt Media, Time has become more contemporary, even a touch radical.
Narang, who has bought space in the magazine for the likes of BMW and Sprint, says: 'The perception was that Time was trading on its longevity. They weren't provocative or current. Over the last 18 months they have turned that around. They even had a naked woman on the cover.'
So what's behind all these bold moves to tap popular culture? The naked woman, used to illustrate a story headlined the 'Truth About Women's Bodies,' is part of Time's effort to reshape its mission, at a time when most readers are getting hourly news updates from Yahoo. The weekly digest now has more in common with a monthly, says Narang.
It is hard to argue with the results of the recent changes. Time's total revenue was up 1% last year to dollars 814,300 behind the top three magazines: TV Guide and Time Inc.-owned, People and Sports Illustrated.
The magazine's total circulation is just over 4 million for the last six months in 1998, down slightly from the same period in 1997.
Managing editor Walter Isaacson joined the title in 1996 and states his goal as, 'Time is, and should be America's common ground.'
Helping Isaacson define that common ground are 200-odd stringers and a staff of around 80 in New York.
From an office high above the Rockefeller Center, Isaacson hosts a noisy 10am news meeting attended by around 20-30 employees. During the daily half hour session, Isaacson discusses ideas for the week's edition with a range of senior editors.
Howard Chua-Eoan, assistant managing editor, explains that initially each editor makes his or her separate suggestions. Then, 'Isaacson knocks people down, but he can change his mind. Some people go and lobby him and send him e-mail or gang up on him. He is very open to new ideas,' he says.
There is a feature meeting once a week on Thursdays at 4pm, but because the title is so news driven, Time doesn't plan much further than two to three weeks ahead.
The biggest selling issue of the year so far was the Littleton school massacre issue. Chua-Eoan, responsible for breaking news and religion, explains what sets Time apart from daily newspapers: 'We send people into the field to soak up a story, rather than just report the wires or the TV. We send people to interview each subject and get a sense of the drama.'
Despite the competition from all-news networks and the Internet, Chua-Eoan says Time can break news until late Saturday night for distribution on Monday's newsstands. The business section, headed by Bill Saporito, is closed by Thursday, along with both Arts & Media, looked after by Jan Simpson and Society news, headed by Dan Goodgame.
Chua-Eoan was on regular weekend duty when Princess Diana died. He organized a 16-hour news effort and revamped 20 pages of the issue overnight.
Very little can alter Time's agenda unless it is 'an act of God or something so horrifying or horrendous it has to get into the magazine,' says Chua-Eoan.
During 1998, Time was dominated by political stories with President Clinton making the front page seven times, eight if you count actor John Travolta who portrayed Clinton in the film Primary Colors. Ken Starr made it twice.
But it was rival Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post Company, which first reported the president's relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Though Time was scooped, it has done other sterling investigative work. For example, it received accolades for its series on corporate welfare.
Priscilla Painton, who's in charge of Nation, the section that features crime and domestic natural disasters, spearheads the magazine's political coverage.
Time's huge staff provides plenty of contact points for PR executives. The magazine is headquartered in New York and has bureaus in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Miami, Detroit, and San Francisco. There are also international offices operating from Moscow to Mexico City.
Chua-Eoan says these bureaus are the first line of information for the editors. He suggests PR pros plant the seed of an idea with the assistant managing editors or senior editors and then flesh out their story to individual reporters who are then able to pitch it back to the editors. Technology or health stories should be pitched to Philip Elmer-DeWitt, who looks after the Science section.
Victoria Reinert, senior writer for the Society section, advises PR pros to think hard about whether it is relevant?for example, pitching a story on corporate give-aways to Kindergartens is not likely to endear you to the staff.
'We prefer to hear by fax and mail, though the odd call is not unwelcome.' says Reinert. 'Experts are always interesting to know about. It is good to have their names.'
Chua-Eoan says PR pros are most helpful when they provide a critical eye and engage with the title. They are at their worst when they are pushing products.
Perhaps the most PR friendly section is Personal Time, which gives advice under columns headed: Your Money, Your Technology, and Your Health. All columns are illustrated with graphs and charts, statistics, and trend data.
In May this year, Isaacson introduced a new column, Your Family, into the Personal Time section saying: 'Big government has become less relevant to our lives. What we do as citizens to build better families, schools and communities has become more important and interesting.'
Time has made substantive efforts in 1999 to write the definitive story of the century. But it has been criticized for producing lists of influential figures, which also included Bart Simpson. More entertaining than lists themselves, however, were contributors such as Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell.
Back at the beginning of the century, only one in 13 American homes owned a telephone and only one in seven had a bath tub. One wonders what founders Luce and Hadden would make of this end of the century and their magazine as it moves to define the visionaries of the next century in the year 2000.
HOW TO REACH THE STAFF AT TIME
Time & Life Building
Rockefeller Center New York, NY 10020-1393
Tel: (212)522- 1212; Fax: (212)522 -0323; Internet: www.Time.com
E-mail: Most editors and writers can be contacted using the following standard Firstname_lastname@time.com
NEW YORK HQ STAFF:
- Managing Editor: William Isaacson
- Deputy Managing Editor: James Kelly
- Executive Editors: Stephen Koepp, front of book; Christopher Porterfield, back of book
- Assistant Managing Editors: Howard Chua-Eoan, breaking news, religion; Philip Elmer-DeWitt, Science section; Dan Goodgame, Society section; Priscilla Painton; Nation (politics, crime)
- Special Projects Editor: Barrett Seaman (Time supplements)
Bill Saporito, business coverage
Joshua Cooper Ramo, World section
Janice Simpson, Arts & Media, including books
Richard Zoglin, lifestyle coverage including food
Belinda Luscombe, Notebook section