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.
Just the phrase “Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration” is enough to put most people to sleep. But read the story. It’s got money: this is a $13-billion program that ran off the rails and is likely to suffer huge cost overruns beyond that sum. It’s got scandal: that $13 billion has been wasted, according to one report, on a “dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.” And it’s important: the lapse in satellite coverage will “threaten life and property” around the world, a review panel warned.
So, if I was running the Washington Post or the DC bureau of any major news organizations, I’d put a reporter on this project: Find the five most obscure but important government programs that are so screwed up and so important that a new Romney or Obama administration had better jump in and fix them immediately. The way to start is to read the reports of all the independent inspector generals who work in every government agency. That’s apparently what generated this Times story about how in three or four years we may have even more to worry about when another Hurricane Sandy looms offshore.