Richard Stengel's makeover of Time reeks of déjà vu.

Media criticism.
Dec. 18 2006 9:45 PM

Time and Again

Richard Stengel's magazine makeover reeks of déjà vu.

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"We're going from a 19th-century factory model to a 21st-century Internet model,"Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel tells Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz today (Dec. 18). Factory-for-the-Internet is Stengel's metaphor for how Time is swapping its traditional methodology—in which reporters and researchers feed facts to writers in New York—for a new order in which reporters will write their own stories.

Reporters writing their own stories? What next?

You wouldn't know from listening to Stengel that Time has been down this reformist road before, and that upon reaching its destination the magazine didn't stay long. Henry Muller tried a similar makeover in 1987 when he became Time's managing editor. One of his first moves was to begin dismantling the magazine's "decades-old system of correspondents filing copy from bureaus to be rewritten in New York," as the Wall Street Journal reported in 1993, pushing "for reporters to write from the field, feeling their writing would carry more immediacy.

"We have to reinvent Time, to dare something more radical than the periodic renovations of Time through the decades," said Muller in a press release quoted by the Journal. He called his innovations a "1990s approach to newsmagazine journalism" that "will not be an obligatory regurgitation of familiar material. The stories will devote more space to ideas, to analysis; they can have a point of view."

Stengel sounds like Muller's distant echo when he tells the Post, "One great writer-reporter who has a point of view about a subject important to our lives—what's better than that?"

Stengel, like Muller, takes the job in a time of crisis, simultaneously redesigning the magazine and cutting its staff. And Stengel will soon face a novel challenge: Next month, the magazine will switch from Monday to Friday distribution on newsstands, taking it out of direct competition with Newsweek. Time's strategy is to drive news-hungry readers to its Web site, as Time Inc. Editor in Chief John Huey implies in this August press release.

One thing that persuaded Muller to abandon breaking news was his belief that the 24/7 metabolism of CNN had stolen the news thunder. In the current scenario, it's the breakneck-paced Web stealing the news. Muller thought the magazine's response to the quickening news cycle should be a more featurery, less newsy approach to events and issues, a sentiment Stengel seems to share.

By 1992, the Muller experiment was over. His changes were plowed under and staffers reverted to the old method, in which they used hand tools to chip each issue of Time out of granite. Three managing editors later—each of whom attempted some variation of Time revitalization—can Stengel really rejig the magazine?

In the Post, Stengel heralds the hiring of three "star" columnists, all of whom happen to have graduated from Harvard in the early 1970s: Michael Kinsley, who will write biweekly; Walter Isaacson, Time managing editor from 1995 to 2001, as a sometime foreign affairs essayist; and Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, who will contribute occasionally. Stengel has also hired the Washington Post'sDavid Von Drehle as a roving political correspondent. (Von Drehle, who graduated from the University of Denver in 1983, got his Harvard education at Oxford, where he earned a masters of letters.)

There's nothing wrong with these hires—even this Kinsley guy has been known to write intelligently. But how can they change the magazine's current voice when they are the magazine's current voice? Kinsley has written Time columns under the magazine's "Essay" rubric since 1988. Isaacson worked at the magazine for about two decades. And Kristol isn't much of a deviation from Charles Krauthammer, an occasional Time "Essay" writer.

Only one new Time writer mentioned in Kurtz's piece stands anywhere outside the journalistic establishment: Ana Marie Cox, who has worked as an editor, a blogger, a novelist, and a magazine writer. Cox joined the Time's Web site earlier this year and contributes to the magazine. She's a force of nature—but one fresh voice does not remake a magazine.

One should never judge a relaunch while the magazine is still on the pad, but this is more than a relaunch. Stengel's to-do list includes changing the magazine's content, firing the old staff that can't do the new job, hiring new staffers that can, cutting the budget, and moving the pub date. While he's at it, Stengel is supposed to transition the magazine's readership to the Web. On the seventh day, they should let him rest. He'll deserve it.

******

Somebody at Time Inc. owes Henry Muller an apology. But where is Muller? This 2000 profile from Stanfordmagazine isn't much help. According to Nexis, his last byline was in July 2001, for Fortune Europe. Drop me a line, Henry, and I'll buy you a sandwich. My e-mail is slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co., which also owns Newsweek, a Time competitor.)

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