A Loss of Imagination at TIME Inc.


TIME Inc., the publishing arm of Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX), announced it will cut 6% of its staff, as a sickening drop in print revenue has not been offset by online revenue. The CEO of the unit, Laura Lang, and Editor-in-Chief Martha Nelson will be spared, along with most senior staff, apparently. These executives are the ones who have lacked the imagination to look at the balance of the industry and gather the courage to move beyond the traditional websites that the company operates, at least to experiment with models that might help reverse TIME's slide.

Many TIME websites have an uncanny similarity to their print counterparts. A quick look at Time.com proves that. Its paucity of interactive features and video make it little different from a local newspaper site - albeit with the kind of journalism that only large media companies can produce.

TIME management may believe that the company should remain above the models that are hallmarks of successful online content properties, such as the Huffington Post and Forbes. These sites use content produced by people who are not professional journalists. But those contributors often are experts in one field or another and, therefore, have something of value to add as a mix to the kind of content TIME writers have provided for decades.

The Huffington Post is hardly the only model TIME could use to increase the number of visitors to its sites who stay for long periods. Some large Web properties have levels of "membership," marked by frequency of visits and comments. (Some stories at TIME sites do not have any comments at all.) These "members" are similar to the "trusted" e-commerce" partners of Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN). It is hard to say how this kind of engagement would hurt the quality of TIME journalism. Loyalty to a product is not a mark of a product declining in value.

TIME has done very little to experiment with paywalls. If the demand for People.com is anywhere close to the demand for its print content, it would seem there is at least a reasonable chance that visitors would pay for much online content. That might cut down on pages available to advertisers. But those pages sometimes carry ads for Subway (at Sports Illustrated) and Choice Hotels, which probably do not pay huge premiums for to be on those pages.

There will be another round of layoffs at TIME, maybe next year or the year after. The company has not done enough to build its online audiences and demonstrate that they can be a growing source of revenue, either through better engagement, whether that drives higher quality ads, or readers who are willing to pay for some of what they want to see. Or, maybe TIME management has experimented with every one of the best features of its competition and found that not a single one of them works. But that is unlikely.

Douglas A. McIntyre worked for TIME Inc. from 1977 to 1981, and wrote for Time.com in 2008.

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