Who Needs More Time?

When did you last drink Tang? Play a music cassette, or tie on a Peter Max necktie?

I hope Salesforce majordomo Marc Benioff and wife Lynne are rolling such questions around as they plunk down $190 million for Time — an old-school journalism platform if ever we had one, but today a quaint one, without a clear mission, or even a niche.

It is nice to honor the past. (Full disclosure: my father worked for Time Inc. in its dominant era as a Life senior editor, and I grew up on the periphery of the company’s Mad Men culture.) But doing so is not always good business. Benioff might as well have bought, and vowed to revive, Studebaker or Pan Am.

Until the ’90s I paid attention to Time’s covers and pored over its weekly shot of zeitgeist-defining analysis and perspective, forged though it was in the faraway elite towers of Manhattan media. But sometime after Bill Clinton was elected I quit feeling incomplete without the current paper issue of Time on my desk.

We no longer need a cadre of Ivy Leaguers in crisp Brooks Brothers shirts, tapping away atop the Time-Life Building, to frame the zeitgeist for us; we all do it, ourselves, communally, online, in real time. Today the digital streets are mounded with free analysis and perspective, more added to the pile hourly. I cannot scrape up enough minutes to follow all the daily curated op-ed links put together by RealClearPolitics, Axios, and Playbook, and Time is not often on their leaderboards. We have more in-depth storytelling than ever, much from sources that blossomed well after Time’s heyday: Vox, Vice, Mic, Wired, Griot, Salon, Quartz…

So who needs more Time? Born 1923, forgotten-but-not-gone in 2018? What’s an instructive case study to guide Benioff and company to a renaissance? (People tried to revive Studebaker and Pan Am, too. They were viewed as eccentrics, and soon as failed eccentrics.) I don’t think there is one, and I expect it will be very difficult to reinvent Time’s value proposition for this brutal, over-provisioned media environment.

The first rule of market positioning is: shoot where others ain’t. Where is that territory, right now?

The bigger picture: most establishment journalism outlets remain in search of sustainable business models that will bring them out a buck ahead, and Time’s change of hands offers nothing teachable. Old-school news platforms must do better than pray for salvation from a beneficent plutocrat. Not even Bezos, Benioff, Laurene Jobs, et al can subsidize every worthy journalistic cause in perpetuity. Indeed, the needier the holding, the worse its losses, the more a mogul-owner might be inclined to believe he or she is at least due the right to steer it according to whim. And that way real trouble lies.

Do we need more Time? No more than we need Tang, or a ’65 Studebaker Lark. We have to want it — and while I wish Benioff well, it will be a tall order to create such demand around so defiant a 20th century icon.

 

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