What Time magazine's new publication date means.

What Time magazine's new publication date means.

What Time magazine's new publication date means.

Media criticism.
Aug. 21 2006 7:17 PM

His Girl Friday

What Time magazine's new publication date means.

Time Magazine.

Who among us has leafed through his copy of Time magazine and then raged over the fact that it comes out on Monday when he'd rather get it on Friday for consumption during his leisurely weekend?

Not I.

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So, Time's announcement that, come January 2007, it's breaking from its Monday pub date, which it shares with Newsweek, for Friday didn't make me cheer. It did, however, cause me to wonder whether this means Time will be coming out three days before Newsweek or four days after.

It's not a Zen koan. Synchronized on the same pub date and edited in the same city, Time and Newsweek have long defined themselves in terms of one another, battling each other for bragging rights the way newspapers did back in the The Front Page days. Both culled the same seven days for news—Saturday to Saturday—and hunted editorial rabbits they could pull out of their hats to upstage the other. If you spend any time with Time and Newsweek staffers, you find them using the same language to brag about their magazine's "obvious" editorial superiority.

Time's switch removes it from the gladiator pit it's shared with the smaller, younger Newsweek for decades. Once Time starts arriving on Fridays, the two will have separate editorial rhythms, making them journalistic rivals in the sense that Time and Lucky are journalistic rivals: That is, not at all. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

Time magazine hopes to reposition itself as a weekend read. To hear publishing types talk about it, all folks want to do with their Saturdays and Sundays is read, hence the expansion of the Wall Street Journal franchise last fall with a "Weekend Edition." Nobody ever points out that weekends are already block-booked with plump Sunday newspapers, new movie releases, football games and other sporting events, church, picnics, and various family occasions. If Time wants readers to eat the magazine from Friday through Sunday, what will readers jettison from their diets to make room? Readership habits are notoriously difficult to change.

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The Friday pub date has long been studied at the two newsweeklies—and sickly U.S. News & World Report—as a way to break away from the pack, but until now none of the magazines has had the courage to make the jump. One economic advantage presented by the new pub date is the cheaper press time during a weekday as opposed to the more expensive weekend press time that the Monday pub date requires. The savings could go to Time's bottom line. The new pub date will also give Time's advertising representatives a soapbox from which to pitch otherwise resistant retailers that do major business on weekends and want their ads viewed then.

If you judge a magazine by its press release, Time's announcement, which speaks of the change as "part of a larger plan to reformulate the magazine and Time.com," makes it sound as though the publication now regards the Web and not Newsweek as its chief competition. Time Inc. Editor in Chief John Huey states,  "This move paves the way for creating an even more powerful combination of the magazine and its web alter ego." To the Wall Street Journal, Huey added something slightly less than flattering about the power of the company's old media vehicle: "Nobody breaks news in print anymore. … Time has broken a lot of news in the last year, and none of it was in print."

Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel offered in the press release a bogus opportunity afforded by the new pub date. It "will enable us to offer our unparalleled brand of analysis, news and agenda-setting ideas continuously and seamlessly." How does a Monday pub date prevent continuous and seamless offerings? Is this Stengel's way of saying that Time will be more like the Economist, which already hits the newsstand on Friday?

Whatever the nature of Time's editorial and publishing transformation, will the institution even know itself once it's decoupled from its loyal enemy Newsweek? It will be as purposeful as Germany without France, Hunter S. Thompson without Richard Nixon, or Biggie without Tupac. No matter what Time's success, I suspect it won't take long before it starts begging Newsweek, which will be likewise disoriented, to chase its lead and restore the status quo ante. Once that happens, we'll be able to return to the standard, reassuring debate of, "In these modern times, who needs newsweeklies anyway?"

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Time's announcement caused a major upheaval at Slate, where one radical faction insisted that we hold all our copy until Friday morning and release it all in one bowel-breaking burst to bury the altered newsweekly. Your strategies sought: Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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