Friday, May 18, 2007

Can Top Washington Writers Save Time?

Can Top Washington Writers Save Time?
By Harry Jaffe

Time managing editor Richard Stengel has big plans for the three marquee Washington journalists he’s hired.

“All are best in their class,” Stengel says. “They fit perfectly into my strategy.”

Stengel, who took over the reigns of Time earlier this year, hired David Von Drehle and Michael Grunwald from the Washington Post. He took Mark Halperin from ABC News.

The three hires came on the heels of layoffs across Time Inc.’s magazines, from Sports Illustrated to People. The company shuttered Life magazine. Stengel cut 50 from Time magazine’s staff in March. The newsweekly closed bureaus in Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

Now Stengel is doing some selective hiring.

“What do we do as journalists?” Stengel asks. “We write, we report, we think. In terms of people who do these things, David and Michael are as good as anybody anywhere.”

Mark Halperin, ABC’s political director for years, will help in “framing the conversation,” he says. “His metabolism is perfect for the Internet.”

Having sliced his staff, Stengel has made room for writers he can build into brand names.

“They are already great brands within our community,” he says. “We want to make them more potent in the broader community.”

Time will tell whether Stengel’s strategy will succeed. Many mainstream media publications are struggling, and newsweeklies like Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News top the list of endangered species in the new digital world.

“We feel bullish all the way around,” Stengel says. “I’m fixing the roof when the sun is shining.”

From the outside, Time’s roof looks a little leaky. Industry sources say its ad pages are down by double digits. Part of its business strategy has been to cut circulation from 4 million to 3.25 million. It has also reduced advertising rates.

The magazine has made a big gamble by changing its publication cycle, moving up its deadlines to Thursday for an earlier close, hoping to get the magazine to readers on Friday. But many readers still receive the magazine Monday or Tuesday.

Von Drehle, Grunwald, and Halperin will fit into a Time that’s been reconceived and redesigned. Gone is the omniscient voice instilled 84 years ago by founder Henry Luce. The new Time has bylines on the cover and commentary by Joe Klein, Peter Beinart, and Michael Kinsley, among others.

Newsweek, Time’s main competition, took the personality brand-building route years ago. Evan Thomas, Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman, and Robert Samuelson have had their names on Newsweek’s cover and their faces on its pages for decades.

Taken together, Time’s changes seem to be tending toward the Economist’s style of essays and columns rather than hard news reporting.

“We have to be both timely and timeless,” Stengel says. “That’s what I think keeps the magazine around.”

Stengel also wants to keep people coming to Time’s Web site, which has been the beneficiary of resources cut from the print publication. He points to Von Drehle’s coverage of the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech.

“David went down to Blacksburg, filed for, and also wrote a great piece for the magazine,” he says. “That’s the idea now—there’s nobody who’s all one and none of the other. Everybody gets that.”

Stengel says readers are getting great reads from Swampland, Time’s online political blog. Ana Marie Cox, famous for creating the gossipy, R-rated content of the Wonkette web site, is Swampland’s brand-name writer. Joe Klein pitches in.

Says Stengel: “It’s been a roaring success.”

In fact, Swampland is hard to distinguish among the hundreds of political blogs. Yes, Cox adds her trademark snarky tone, Joe Klein’s insights spice up the site, and Halperin will bring his years of experience in connecting with the “googling monkeys” he branded while overseeing ABC’s political blog.

But Swampland wanders across the same terrain covered by newspaper blogs from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and dozens of others, including Slate and Salon.

In Von Drehle and Grunwald, Stengel has placed his bets on two fine Washington journalists. But can they keep Time magazine from seeing its readership and ad pages continue to decline? If the answer to survival is Swampland, then the marriage of Ana Marie Cox and Mark Halperin could either fire up the site or burn it down.

Survey: Newsprint is people's preference

Survey: Newsprint is people's preference
A poll commissioned by an industry group shows newspapers still reign.

Newspapers are still the reigning source of news, advertising and information, according to a recently released survey conducted by American Opinion Research. Eight in 10 adults read a newspaper per week, and Florida readers are 6 percent more likely to pick up a newspaper on the weekdays and 7 percent more likely to read a Sunday newspaper than the national average, the survey said.

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The survey was commissioned in December by the Florida Press Association, a nonprofit organization for newspapers and journalism-related businesses. It was conducted by American Opinion Research, which is headed by a former pollster from USA Today, which could raise some questions about the ethical foundation of such a survey.

In the 51-page report, findings included:

About 82 percent of Florida adults read a printed newspaper during an average seven-day week.

Print newspapers are the most-used venue for public notices. Two thirds of those surveyed said they would read less public notices if they were moved online.

About 66 percent of adults use the newspaper as their main source of local sales and shopping information.
The study paints a rosy picture of an industry that's recently experienced some turmoil. Circulation has been dropping for newspapers nationwide for years. Statewide, The Orlando Sentinel recently slashed 24 newsroom positions, and The Florida Times-Union implemented a hiring and salary raise freeze in February, citing declining advertising revenue.

But newspapers' monetary woes are a separate issue from the survey's results, said Dean Ridings, president and CEO of the Florida Press Association.

"The real estate downturn has affected a lot of different media but certainly newspapers," he said. "In addition to the Realtors not selling [homes] and not advertising, the title companies, the home big-box stores are slowing advertising - it's all related to real estate as well. Those have had a huge impact on the revenue of newspapers."

The survey also noted that printed newspapers are losing traction to the Internet when it comes to job, automotive, real estate and major appliance advertisement services for readers.

"Newspapers have lost ground," Ridings said. "But we still have the advantage when it comes to credibility."

The survey findings seem to be sound and comparable to those of national studies, said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit institute that studies journalism and ethics issues.

"A contributing factor to the statement about Florida readers reading more and in higher numbers than average could be the higher-than-average age of our population," Edmonds said. "It's factual and a good point, but there's a lot of shifting as the years go by with readers who used to be seven days a week readers and now they read two days a week. When you add all that up, that's a contributing factor to the loss of circulation."

And what about the potential ethical quagmire posed by the survey being commissioned by an institution that stands to gain from positive results?

"It is the kind of survey that points to some of the positives, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that," Edmonds said. "The Florida Press Association is a source of information and research but they're also in the business to promote the industry and that's OK, too."

Florida Press Association's Ridings insists that credibility was critical in disseminating the information, and he was shocked by such positive results.

"We get so lost with the problems that we're having that we tend to lose sight of the overwhelming evidence that newspapers are still a source of information," he said. "For us as an association, credibility is more important than hype. Our members are very skeptical."

It all came down to hard boiled-facts, according to Anthony Casale, CEO of American Opinion Research and former USA Today pollster. "We get paid whether the numbers are good or bad."