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Nancy Gibbs, TIME’s Executive Editor to Samir Husni: This is a Fantastic Time to be in Journalism and the Changes in Technology Only Make it Better: The Mr. Magazine™ Interview

February 24, 2011

Change is the only constant in the media business. And the changes in the hierarchy of Time Inc. last week, sadly overshadowed some innovative changes at TIME, the magazine.

Rick Stengel, TIME’s managing editor, wrote in his Editor’s Desk under the “predictive” heading “Changes All Around”

“If you think this issue of TIME looks a bit different, you’re right. We’ve tweaked the front of the magazine, adding an Economy page and a photo spread; moved 10 Questions to the back page; and created one large section called The Culture, which combines the old Life and Arts sections. The design evolution was led by executive editor Nancy Gibbs, along with assistant managing editor Radhika Jones and our design director, D.W. Pine…”


I had the opportunity to talk with Nancy Gibbs, TIME’s executive editor who led those innovative changes. I asked her about the changes at TIME, the future of print and digital, the role of the magazine vs. the online and the tablets and the status of journalism and its future today. Here are some sound bites followed by, in typical Mr. Magazine™ Interviews, lightly edited transcript of the interview.

The sound bites:

No matter how much technology changes, no matter how much the political environment changes, the human need for stories is every bit as powerful as the need for food and water and sleep.

Storytelling as an important service and art form is always going to be important. Having more ways to tell a great story, having more platforms for storytelling is terrific.

What print allows you to do is to have a contract with your reader that they’re willing to spend some time with you.

Everything seems to be additional, rather than a replacement. That doesn’t worry me. I love print, but I also love what we’re finding we’re able to do on these other platforms as well.

If you want to have a much more manageable, edited and curated account of things that really matter and are interesting and surprising and provocative to think about, then the magazine is a very efficient vehicle for that.

This whole (change) process was launched and pursued completely independently of anything Newsweek was doing.

This is a fantastic time to be in journalism and the changes in technology only make it better.

And now for the full, lightly edited, interview with Nancy Gibbs, executive editor of TIME.

Samir Husni: TIME underwent a redesign in 2007 to become what I refer to as the first glossy intellectual weekly, so what’s the reasoning behind this new round of changes?

Nancy Gibbs: This is really an evolution of that design; you won’t notice–and I don’t think our readers will notice–a dramatic change. The fonts and typefaces are the same. The general feeling of the magazine is very much the same. It is more of a reorganization and I think a freshening–almost a cleaning up–of that design, because, as you know very well, over the years where you start adding various features and adding new little trinkets here and there, any design can get too busy sometimes and may lose some of its clarity.

What we were looking for was supposed to increase the clarity and the flexibility that we had. One thing that would frustrate us from week to week was that as we have an audience online–it is almost as big as the audience for our printed magazine– and there’s very little overlap between the two and yet we were producing fantastic stories on time.com for which there wasn’t really a home in the magazine. It was not easy, natural or organic to have stories that started out online and ended up in the magazine and vice-versa. So, we thought if there were a way to look at the architecture of the magazine: how we cover the news, how we cover feature stories, how we use photography–it would let us harvest the best of time.com through the week, and that would be very helpful.

A good example of that is one of the most successful features that we’ve had, both on time.com and on the iPad, is the way we feature photojournalism. We are certainly able to use photographs in our features-well stories, however we still have pictures that we wish we had a place for (in the printed magazine) even if they didn’t necessarily go with some major news that we were writing about in the well of the magazine, but we want readers to see. We can do that now with the briefings section at the front of the magazine. When you turn to the first page you have what we call “Close Up”, which is just whatever we think is the most knock-your-socks-off picture of the week. So it was with things like that that we just wanted to have the flexibility to find a home for things in the magazine that we know the readers really like. We knew if we made the architecture even clearer that we could be much more flexible about what we put in it.

SH: Everybody is talking now about apps. Everybody is paying so much attention to digital and here, yet again, TIME magazine surprises people by refocusing on print saying, “How can we amplify the printed edition.” Do you think we are spending too much time on digital and ignoring print? Or do you think there is a future for both? Or are we all going to be worshiping the machines?

NG: I absolutely think there’s a place for both and partly because there are things that are suited to print more than to reading on a screen or experiencing on a screen, and there are things that are great on a screen. I think that great stories are great stories. Storytelling as an important service and art form is always going to be important. Having more ways to tell a great story, having more platforms for storytelling is terrific. I don’t think we should view this as a competition or some sort of fight to the death between digital and print. I think it allows everything to reach its highest level. The experience you have reading a magazine is just a different experience than you have when you’re sitting at a computer. The tablets add yet a third kind of experience. The tablets are not the same as sitting with your desktop, they’re not the same, obviously, as sitting with a printed magazine, and so we’re still learning in exciting ways about each new platform. I’m sure we will learn more and more going forward. I don’t by any means think that they replace print anymore as everyone has pointed out. It’s not as if television replaced radio. It’s not as though cable television replaced broadcast television. It’s not as though the Internet replaced movies or TV. Everything seems to be additional, rather than a replacement. That doesn’t worry me. I love print, but I also love what we’re finding we’re able to do, and we’ll be doing down the road on these other platforms as well.

SH: One of the things I tell the students is that we’re no longer journalists; we are now experience makers. You talked so much about the differences in the experience, between TIME, the magazine, the website and the tablet. Can you briefly tell me how you define the experience when you are flipping through the pages of a printed magazine, and how do you differentiate that experience from the online and from the tablet experience?

NG: One handy distinction people will make is distinguishing between a lean-back experience and a lean-forward experience. When you are sitting at your computer and you have the screen open to time.com, or to another news site, you also may have instant messages coming in, your email is buzzing, you’re constantly being invited to move away from whatever page you’re reading. I think people who write for websites and blogs and news sites realize that they must command the reader’s attention instantly, and they should not count on holding on to it for very long because you’re able to jump around a bunch. Websites invite you to jump around. There are links that will take you away from whatever it is they have been trying to get you to read in the first place.

It’s a very different experience than a magazine, which is a much more lean-back experience where I see people settle in to read a magazine knowing that they can get lost in it; knowing that the magazine is not suddenly going to interrupt itself. That’s a much more immersive experience.

So far the tablets can go either way. No one is particularly ready to read a book sitting at their desktop but people have been reading books on e-readers now for years. The experience of the brighter screen and the ease of “teaching” through a book on an iPad is also a good experience. You can’t, at the moment, as easily scribble in the margin or turn down the corner of the page or do various things that you are used to doing with a tactile experience of a book. It is possible to have an immersive experience with tablets that I don’t think is possible to have in the same way with websites. In that sense, the tablets are a more natural extension of the print magazine.

What we do on time.com is very different than what we do in TIME magazine and the actual content of TIME Magazine is a tiny fraction of the content of time.com. Time.com is wholly its own real-time, 24/7 news site.

I think what print allows you to do is have a sort of contract with your reader that they’re willing to spend some time with. It doesn’t mean you’re allowed to waste their time. You still have to signal that you are respectful that they’re spending time with you, but you don’t have to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck with the first five words of your story. You can sometimes enter into a story more artfully. It can be longer than typically what we see anyone doing online. In a way, with the photography integrated into it, it is a richer, three-dimensional experience.

SH: Do readers want a 24/7? Or do they want a gatekeeper? When they get TIME magazine, do they feel up to speed on what’s going on? Is once a week more than enough? Or do you think that we are so immersed with technology now that we are forgetting about the human being?

NG: I think that what we hear from our readers is they are aware that at any minute of any hour of any day they can find out what is happening anywhere in the world. They know that’s all available to them. But, we’re all busy people and we do not have time to spend, 12, 15, 18 hours a day reading through news sites and four newspapers and the live streams of whether it’s Al Jazeera this week and the BBC last week and NBC next week. People do not have time, and if they want to remain informed about important stories that are both those in the news–what on earth is going on in Libya right now, and stories sort of behind the news–they need for us to be the curators for them.

There are a limited amount of hours in the day, and what we hear from our readers is they like for the magazine to start with a very efficient overview of important events grabbed from the last week. They find that enormously useful. They don’t want a lot of extra bells and whistles and gimmicks. They want an efficient digest of the news. In the feature well they want us to take them somewhere where they would not be able to go; to take them into the rooms where the doors are locked. What was the president really saying to his top advisors as Egypt was going through these earthquakes? What was really going on down on Wall Street as Lehman Brothers was collapsing? This helps readers understand not only what really happened but also why it happened, what it meant and why it affects them.

The way news is delivered online, the 24/7 news, all those by definition can’t be storytelling. That is delivering the news as it’s happening and to pull back and say, “Well here’ s the overall story. Here’s the background and the context. Here are the most important factors that lead up to this.” You cannot do that in sort of continuous stream. You can only do that when enough time has passed and it’s possible to make sense of an event. This is why the weekly rhythm of TIME magazine is really ideal. It is enough time to be making sense and taking stock of the important events of the moment and to put them into context and sort out what’s passing, significant, trivial and what really matters and what we should be paying attention to.
Yet, the great thing about having time.com is we can also be doing real-time updates of here’s what’s happening today in Bahrain. Here’s what’s happening right now in Yemen or, in the Senate. We have the best of both worlds; we can be an authoritative, reliable, trusted news source for people who want to know what is happening right now, but those same people also want us to pull back and tell them what this means, how it affects me and why I should care about it. That’s what we’re able to do in the magazine.

SH: What I hear from some people is we’re having an information overload. We’re bombarded…

NG: That’s exactly where our opportunity lies. It is exactly because people feel overloaded. They cannot possible take it all in and sort it all out. What we’re saying is we will give you as much of the news as you want. Log on to time.com, subscribe to our Twitter feed, and we are there. But if you want to have a much more manageable, edited and curated account of things that really matter and are interesting and surprising and provocative to think about, then the magazine is a very efficient vehicle for that.

SH: Is there any reason why Time has made changes now? Is it because Newsweek is changing? There is a lot of talk with Tina Brown changing Newsweek.

NG: That’s so funny. I laugh with people about this, but we started to make these changes roughly a year ago. Not only was Tina Brown nowhere near Newsweek, Newsweek hadn’t been sold yet. Newsweek was going along, doing its thing. This whole process was launched and pursued completely independently of anything Newsweek was doing. When we were ready to do it, we were ready to do it. These things take a long time. Even when the changes are not big, it takes a long time to sort out what we want to do.

Things like the new “Culture” section in the back; I’m so excited about it because it is really fun, and it was designed to be a very smart, very friendly, sort of intimate conversation with readers about the things that people will tend to care most about: your health, your money, what movie to see this weekend, your kids, the more personal conversations that tend to be what people talk about over dinner. That’s what we get to do in that “Culture” section. It is fantastic to now have this, again, very flexible vehicle to cover all those topics that we’ve always covered but in a different way or improvised way every week. Now, having that section and figuring out what we’re going to do with it this week is just as much fun as I’ve had in a long time.

SH: You’ve done a great job in making TIME a must read. It’s no longer an option if you are in this business. Being a teacher, a professor, what do you tell incoming journalists now? You’re a woman who was has written more cover stories for Time magazine, more columns; you have your hand on the pulse of America. What do you tell those incoming journalism students? Is there a future for them?

NG: Absolutely. I sure hope so, and I absolutely think so. I think there is something about human nature that will not change. No matter how much technology changes, no matter how much the political environment changes, the human need for stories is every bit as powerful as the need for food and water and sleep. It is stories that let us make sense of our world and understand our placement. In a sense, the busier and more information-clogged our lives become, the more important it is to have as part of one’s diet a kind of storytelling that explains not just what’s happening but what it means. Doing that is so much fun. Our job is basically figuring out things that people are interested in and finding out more about it. It is, by nature, an always-fascinating job. I was talking to a journalism class last week, and it was a fantastic group of kids from all over the world, and I think one thing that we’re seeing right now with the extraordinary news stories we’re seeing is that the importance of bearing witness and the importance of explanation and information that is reliable and authoritative has never been greater. I think that this is a fantastic time to be in journalism and the changes in technology only make it better.

SH: Thank you.

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3 comments

  1. Interesting read, I wouldn’t have thought of Time as a glossy intellectual weekly, but now you mention it, it does fit quite well!


  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jay Rosen , Samir Husni and Magazine Editing, rondiorio. rondiorio said: RT @jayrosen_nyu: Magazine editors coping with digital talk about the "lean back" vs. the "lean forward" experience. http://jr.ly/6zed [...]


  3. I’m excited about The Culture section! Can’t wait to check it out. Thanks for sharing the interview!



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