Richard Stengel on: TIME’s Person of the Year; the newsweeklies; and the future of printDecember 18, 2008
It is no secret that Barack Obama is TIME’s Person of the Year. However, revealing the name of the POY has been one of the most guarded secrets in our industry. The man in charge of the selection is Richard Stengel, TIME’s managing editor. I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Stengel few questions regarding his choice of Obama as the Person of the year, the icon issues of TIME and the future of the newsweeklies and print in general.
Could you have chosen anyone but Obama?
We started thinking about it, (we asked ourselves) can you not choose him? And what would the consequences be? You could make the case that it was the American voter, or the economy, or the subprime mortgage, or some kind of a financial services product that tipped the scales in such a way to make an Obama victory possible. It all kept coming back to Obama himself… So, sometimes the answer is looking you right in the eye and is right in front of you and that’s certainly how we felt this year.
What makes this issue special?
I think it’s about the most beautiful Person of the Year issue that I can recall. It’s very, very visual. The person of the year package opens with 18 pages of images that we collaborated with Flickr, the image sharing site, images done by regular people, not people of Obama. It’s a dazzling array because he is, in many ways, the people’s president. He inspired people in a way that we haven’t seen in a very, very long time. And the art created by regular folks, regular voters around the world, is beautiful and inspiring. And (at the same time) it beautifully compliments the cover itself. I think it’s just a gorgeous memorable iconic image done by Shepherd Ferry, who did the first original Obama poster with “Hope” on it. That (poster) became a symbol of the campaign. We went back to him and said hey what would you do now for President Elect Obama? And it’s really an outstanding memorable iconic image. I think that people will be looking at for decades to come.
I noticed that this year’s Person of the Year cover has no cover lines. Why?
Right, in fact we don’t even have (Obama’s) name on the cover. It just says Person of the Year and because of that very reason, we were thinking, it’s so beautiful, it’s so much a kind of iconic poster, (so) why you even put the name on it. In fact Arthur Hochstein, our great art director went and did a little research and the only other time we didn’t put a name on a Person of the Year was when we did an Aaron Stickler portrait of Ronald Regan in 1980. It was just a portrait of Regan in Person of the Year.
How important for the survival of magazines like TIME all those iconic issues like Person of the Year, The TIME 100, The List issue, etc…?
I think the annuities, as we call them, are incredibly important. The most important one for us specifically is the Person of the Year issue. That’s the greatest annuity in all of journalism and it’s something that people know all around the world. It’s a sub-brand of the TIME brand, but it’s (also) intrinsically part of it. And I think it works so well because people associate us with history. They associate us with giving a perspective on history. They associate us with talking about people who make news, people who make a difference, people who shape history. That all works beautifully with the TIME brand and the Person of the Year issue embodies that. I think going forward as to your larger question about As to the future of magazines (in general), and the news magazines in particular, I think what has happened in our popular culture as a whole has affected magazines. Look at what’s happened with the movie business. You have to have block busters, and that’s what they look for. Annuities are our blockbusters. It’s the thing that grabs people’s attention and grabs them by the collar and says, look we have something that’s special, that’s different, that’s not the same as what you get everyday or every week. So, I really place a high value in annuities and I would love to have even more. So if you have any suggestions, let me know.
What about the future? Are we in trouble or there is still a future for print?
I sometimes think is that even though we cover the whole world, we cover the economy, and we cover media, we’re often myopic about ourselves. We fail to remember that we are part of the same sea; we’re swimming with everyone else. We think that somehow we’re immune to other trends in the economy. TIME Magazine is very healthy and very robust and profitable. We’ve had to go through some slimming downs, but that’s like also what happens in the economy. I mean, we’re not General Motors, Lehman Brothers, or any of the investment bank… Those places have failed; we’re actually are doing well. I mean, I don’t want to compare ourselves to other titles but I think they’re in different situations than we are. There is a kind of survival of the fittest in all businesses that exist.
Well, if you look at an analogy with Detroit, to use General Motors again (as an example). They had too many products on the market. They had too many different types of cars they were making for their share of the market. I think (that is) one of the things that is happening in the media, apart from the rise of online and the digital space and all of that. I actually think is a great thing for the media. Maybe there are too many products out there. Certainly too many products for the share of the market and there will be some slimming down. I think that’s inevitable. That’s inevitable in every business. You know, they tell you in business school, there were 80 different car companies in America in 1920. That slimmed down before the golden age of the automobile industry…I think some of this is just necessary economies.
So, will print survive?
Our election commemorative issue was the largest newsstand seller since 9/11 and, you know, people want some historical object. I think that is one of the signs of health for print because people like things. And that will never go away.