One element of how Time is now selling subscriptions online suggests real weakness in its print franchise. You can buy an “all access package” — meaning all the appealing subscriber-only content on the website, the tablet edition, and the print magazine — for $30 a year. But if you want to buy just the tablet edition, that will cost you $2.99 a month, or $35.88 a year. In other words, Time will pay you $5.88 for the privilege of sending you the print magazine every week along with providing all the digital material.
To be sure, there was a two-page spread in the print edition that was terrific and could not be replicated (to my taste, at least) online: an unforgettable color photo of the space shuttle Endeavor as it was being rolled from Los Angeles International Airport to its new home at the California Science Center. Photographer Chris Carlson caught the shuttle towering over the houses along an LA street like some kind of monster in a horror movie. But I hadn’t picked up the magazine until I decided to write this column, so I hadn’t noticed it, and if I had, it alone would not have compelled me to buy a print version. Besides, the photo credit says that Carlson is an Associated Press photographer, which I assume means I could have seen the photo elsewhere, too.
Of the issue’s 80 pages, I counted just 20 of paid advertising, four of which were appeals by charities that obviously did not pay full price. There was also a 17-page “Special Advertising Section” on, guess what: “Milestones in the History of Higher Education.” Paid for by the Carnegie and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations, the section was actually pretty interesting once I tried to read it in order to write about it, but I never would have read it otherwise. And although it was public-spirited, its positioning next to the real editorial copy on the same broad subject could have confused anyone who might have read it into thinking it was written by Time’s reporters.
So, I’d like to see a story that probes whether anyone is still reading the weekly print version of Time.
Another key question: What’s the subscription renewal rate and how has that trended recently? High renewal rates are a magazine’s ultimate measure of health. Low rates — or “high churn” — require a constant treadmill of expensive subscription promotion campaigns and ultimately mean that the water is circling the drain.
There’s also the accompanying issue of who’s still advertising in the printed Time, and with what results. And what do Time’s advertisers say about trends in their buying and about whether Time has been more willing lately to offer discounts off of its rate card?
Finally, what do Stengel and Time Inc. CEO Laura Lang say about the future of print? In addition to what they will say officially, a determined reporter ought to be able to find out about any plans in the works that they aren’t ready to talk about either to end print or to cut back to, say, a monthly version, while convincing subscribers who originally signed up for a weekly print edition that what is already a rich supply of compelling digital content is worth the same or more than what they used to get in print.
3. Five looming post-election crises
This story in Saturday’s New York Times, about how mismanagement at the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration may result in a lag in weather satellite coverage sometime around 2015 that will render us unable to track and predict hurricanes, illustrates a key law of journalism: Sometimes the best stories are in the most seemingly boring corners of the bureaucracy.