Print stays viable by sharpening its approach

So let’s catch up with our media monitor: MySpace owned the world a year ago, but last week it laid off 400 workers so it could become “more nimble and team oriented.” Facebook suddenly has matched MySpace in the U.S. with about 70 million members, but it’s still in search of a viable business plan. The tycoons of Twitter are so chic they still operate from a loft in the SoMa district of San Francisco and claim to have turned down a $500 million offer from Facebook.

In view of all this action, I found myself downright embarrassed at the airport a few days ago when I ignored my tweets long enough to do the unmentionable — I bought a copy of Time magazine. Yes, folks, magazines are still around and some are actually doing pretty damned well. I realize it’s retro to acknowledge that fact, especially since some magazines are trying so hard to be relevant that they seem downright breathless.

Newsweek has been trumpeting its redesign, but I can’t get comfortable with it. Time did its redesigning a while ago and has developed a cool new voice. Its management claims Time’s circulation is holding at about 3.25 million readers (a generation ago it was close to 5 million). Time’s corporate cousin, People, keeps spewing out profits with its ongoing celeb soap opera. And then there’s that anomaly, the Economist, whose U.S. circulation is now nearing 800,000 with ad revenues continuing to climb (despite a bumpy first quarter).

Though its writing can be muddy or pedantic, the Economist calmly continues to survey the globe while seeming to be oblivious to digital incursions. In the July Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn writes that Time and Newsweek have tried so desperately to grab eyeballs with their Web strategies that they’re “dooming their print products to near irrelevance.”

The Economist’s online traffic is measly by comparison. “Niche is sometimes the smartest way to take over the world,” Hirschorn suggests.

Rick Stengel, the sharp and combative managing editor of Time magazine, doesn’t see it this way. Under his direction, Time has been increasing its renewals, ads are holding better than those of rivals and online traffic is reaching 7.2 million unique users a month, more than twice Newsweek’s.

Stengel sees Time as its readers’ “curator through the chaos of information.” In the old days, Time’s stories were carefully calibrated to reflect a single voice. Now its contributors include many freelancers: Steven Johnson wrote the recent cover story on Twitter, which opened by acknowledging that many of his readers won’t believe Twitter is worth writing about. Twitter promptly proved its relevance as a key underground communications link during the Iranian uprising.

Time’s staff reporters are busy churning out as many as 25 news stories a day for the Web in addition to writing and editing pieces for the magazine.

The magazine now arrives at homes on Friday or Saturday, not on Monday. Stengel himself appears on the “Morning Joe” TV show with Joe Scarborough each Thursday morning to explain his cover story.

Jeffrey Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner, has made much of his goal of creating a sort of kingdom of content, bidding farewell to AOL and the cable company. A TV guy by background, Bewkes seems more comfortable speculating about the future paths of HBO and the Turner networks. But with Time sharpening its act and People continuing to be the money tree, the venerable Time Inc. side of the empire also will demand its share of the spotlight. Unless, as some insider think, it, too, may ultimately be spun off.

OK, enough about magazines. This whole discussion has left me Tweetless.

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