In his weekly “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. Hurricanes and the utilities
Memo to local newspaper editors and television news producers in today’s hurricane zone: Assuming your community loses its power, find out which of the CEOs responsible for the utilities in your area have generators at their homes. If your reporter can’t get on the CEO’s property to look for one, just have him or her show up outside after it gets dark and see if the lights are on.
The only catch is that the CEO has to live in your region, meaning that the company responsible for the cutbacks in repair crews that could result in the lights staying out across parts of the Northeast for days isn’t yet part of some far-flung conglomerate. As I pointed out here about a year ago, the guy responsible for the prolonged power outages last fall in my area of northern Westchester in New York sits atop a company based in Spain.
What’s the story at Time?
With the imminent demise of the print version of Newsweek, I’d like to know what’s happening at Time.
For years, we’ve watched the Internet and cable news scoop newspapers with breaking news, which forced newspapers to do the feature and explanatory stories that the newsweeklies did. Does that, along with the more general flight from print to digital reading, make the plight of all the newsweeklies so hopeless that Time’s time is running out, too? Or have managing editor Rick Stengel and his team, who have stated repeatedly that the print magazine is thriving, found some secret survival sauce? Does being the last man standing among the three newsweeklies mean a prolonged death or a solid future?
Although Time now boasts a circulation of 3.3 million (which is more than double Newsweek’s), it’s down from more than 4 million just six years ago. And it’s impossible to tell how many of those subscriptions are highly discounted.
More than that, the look and feel — and the appeal — of the October 29 edition that landed in my mailbox a week ago Saturday makes me fearful that Time’s days are numbered, too.
The cover pitching the issue as a “Special Report on Higher Education” was dark, crowded, and downright ugly. Then again, every editor and art department can have a bad week, especially when they try a stunt like making their cover for an education feature look like a messy blackboard and it only works for those at the magazine in on the joke. My problem with that edition of Time was more fundamental: By the time the next edition arrived last Saturday, I realized that I had not opened this one yet. And next to it on a table in the kitchen was the issue from the week before that one, which I realized I had not opened either.
I’m a magazine junky. Plus, I just wrote a book about education. So what stopped me from diving into my Time?
It’s not that it didn’t have some really good stuff; indeed, Time has some of the best reporters and writers in the world, and the October 29 edition showed them off. It’s just that all the stories that I wanted to read — such as Joe Klein’s savvy column on the presidential debates and Amanda Ripley’s long, smart report on online college courses versus on-campus learning — I had already read online, along with some good online-only features, such as the daily “Swampland” political report. That’s not bad for Time as a franchise, because it makes its best online material free only to those who have paid for a subscription. But it does not bode well for the continuation of print.
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.
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.