Do you remember what TIME magazine used to be like? I do, but I’m older than most Americans. That means I can recall when journalism stood for providing information, much more than entertainment or titillation. In 1959, in Rome, I was with some students from Syracuse University. One of them said, “Over here, I can’t get my weekly copy of TIME. How am I gonna know what to think?”
Many Americans felt the same way. Even if you didn’t agree with TIME’s moderately right-wing position on issues, you could feel that after spending an hour or two with the latest issue of TIME you were up to date on most of the major national and world news stories. TIME had correspondents scattered throughout the world. Publisher Henry Luce was a force to be reckoned with.
Each week TIME furnished its readers with reams of content, i.e., words and sentences. It also supplied photos and artwork that complemented the stories without overwhelming them. The magazine seemed to be aimed at intelligent, concerned adults.
Over the past half-century, that has changed. I won’t bore you with a detailed chronology. I’ll just describe some aspects of recent TIME issues. On the plus side, you can still find a few detailed, well-written stories about important public figures and vital problems the USA and the rest of the world are grappling with.
The Jan. 20 issue featured a cover story on Janet Yellen, the incoming chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve system and the first woman ever to hold that job. Another story dealt with the resurgence of Iraq’s Al-Qaeda forces. There was a guest column by a Christian-magazine editor about end-of-life decisions that often must be made for or by critically ill persons.
Columnist Joe Klein (probably the main reason I still subscribe to TIME) wrote about income inequality. The rest of the issue contained a scattering of brief stories that might be described as significant. Or not.
I’m no authority on magazine publishing, but it seems to me that every serious news journal has at least two or three crucial decisions to make for each issue. (1) Which stories do we choose to run?
(2) How much space do we give to each story? (3) How do we display the magazine’s total content – news, photos, advertisements, headlines?
Today TIME’s weekly decisions on those matters baffle me. With only a limited amount of room in each issue, how can the editors justify devoting a two-page spread in the Jan. 20 issue to the photo of an infant being lifted from the rubble of a recent air attack in Damascus? A similar profligate use of precious space was a full-page inside photo of Janet Yellen (whom we had already seen on the cover), facing an opposite page whose total content was forty superfluous words whose message could have been captured in a single paragraph of running text.
In the “Culture” section we were treated to not just one, but two full-page photos of Hollywood celebrity Spike Jonze. To which any thinking reader might cry out, “Why? A two-inch mug shot would have done the same job, thus freeing up room for a thousand words of text.” TIME’s philosophy of space allocation can be seen in the squeentsy semi-agate art captions that practically shout to subscribers past age 70, “If you can’t read this tiny type, the hell with you. Young people can, and they have the most money. They’re the ones our advertisers want to reach.”
The worst example of space allocation in the Jan. 20 issue was a five-page spread on an exercise program called Crossfit – something all America has been begging to learn about, don’t you know? After thumbing through the issue’s inexplicable mish-mash, I asked myself, “Why do you subscribe to TIME?” I have no ready answer. I can get most of the news I need from The Week magazine, the Internet, and other easily available sources.
Several mornings each week, as I wake up, I reach out for my Kindle. I switch it on and, for 50 cents or a buck, order the day’s edition of the Boston Globe, New York Times or Tampa Bay Times. A few seconds later I’m awash in news from around the world.
In fairness to the people who write and publish TIME, I must concede that dozens of good reasons may exist for the many changes to the once-worshipped magazine. In any age, the news business is a shifting, competitive, dog-eat-dog way to earn a buck while staying alive. High on the list of any publication’s headaches is the unpredictable nature of the public’s preferences. Plus columns like this one, whining and kvetching because life ain’t like it used to be.