News & Politics

Can Top Washington Writers Save Time?

Time managing editor Richard Stengel has big plans for the three marquee Washington journalists he’s hired.

“All are best in their class,” Stengel says. “They fit perfectly into my strategy.”

Stengel, who took over the reigns of Time earlier this year, hired David Von Drehle and Michael Grunwald from the Washington Post. He took Mark Halperin from ABC News.

The three hires came on the heels of layoffs across Time Inc.’s magazines, from Sports Illustrated to People. The company shuttered Life magazine. Stengel cut 50 from Time magazine’s staff in March. The newsweekly closed bureaus in Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

Now Stengel is doing some selective hiring.

“What do we do as journalists?” Stengel asks. “We write, we report, we think. In terms of people who do these things, David and Michael are as good as anybody anywhere.”

Mark Halperin, ABC’s political director for years, will help in “framing the conversation,” he says. “His metabolism is perfect for the Internet.”

Having sliced his staff, Stengel has made room for writers he can build into brand names.

“They are already great brands within our community,” he says. “We want to make them more potent in the broader community.”

Time will tell whether Stengel’s strategy will succeed. Many mainstream media publications are struggling, and newsweeklies like Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News top the list of endangered species in the new digital world.

“We feel bullish all the way around,” Stengel says. “I’m fixing the roof when the sun is shining.”

From the outside, Time’s roof looks a little leaky. Industry sources say its ad pages are down by double digits. Part of its business strategy has been to cut circulation from 4 million to 3.25 million. It has also reduced advertising rates.

The magazine has made a big gamble by changing its publication cycle, moving up its deadlines to Thursday for an earlier close, hoping to get the magazine to readers on Friday. But many readers still receive the magazine Monday or Tuesday.

Von Drehle, Grunwald, and Halperin will fit into a Time that’s been reconceived and redesigned. Gone is the omniscient voice instilled 84 years ago by founder Henry Luce. The new Time has bylines on the cover and commentary by Joe Klein, Peter Beinart, and Michael Kinsley, among others.

Newsweek, Time’s main competition, took the personality brand-building route years ago. Evan Thomas, Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman, and Robert Samuelson have had their names on Newsweek’s cover and their faces on its pages for decades.

Taken together, Time’s changes seem to be tending toward the Economist’s style of essays and columns rather than hard news reporting.

“We have to be both timely and timeless,” Stengel says. “That’s what I think keeps the magazine around.”

Stengel also wants to keep people coming to Time’s Web site, which has been the beneficiary of resources cut from the print publication. He points to Von Drehle’s coverage of the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech.

“David went down to Blacksburg, filed for, and also wrote a great piece for the magazine,” he says. “That’s the idea now—there’s nobody who’s all one and none of the other. Everybody gets that.”

Stengel says readers are getting great reads from Swampland, Time’s online political blog. Ana Marie Cox, famous for creating the gossipy, R-rated content of the Wonkette web site, is Swampland’s brand-name writer. Joe Klein pitches in.

Says Stengel: “It’s been a roaring success.”

In fact, Swampland is hard to distinguish among the hundreds of political blogs. Yes, Cox adds her trademark snarky tone, Joe Klein’s insights spice up the site, and Halperin will bring his years of experience in connecting with the “googling monkeys” he branded while overseeing ABC’s political blog.

But Swampland wanders across the same terrain covered by newspaper blogs from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and dozens of others, including Slate and Salon.

In Von Drehle and Grunwald, Stengel has placed his bets on two fine Washington journalists. But can they keep Time magazine from seeing its readership and ad pages continue to decline? If the answer to survival is Swampland, then the marriage of Ana Marie Cox and Mark Halperin could either fire up the site or burn it down.