The artifact

Twenty years ago last week, on a Sunday night, then-President George H. W. Bush debated with candidates Bill Clinton and Ross Perot for the first time. The event had been months in the making, with each of the candidates angling for a time slot and debate rules.

The debate was announced less than a week before it took place. At the time, I was production director of TIME magazine, a position I'd held since late 1990. When word came down that the first debate had been scheduled, a handful of people rushed to my office to figure out what we were going to do.

The problem was this: TIME typically started its weekly print run early on Sunday morning, 18 hours before the debate was scheduled to begin (TIME's schedule has since changed). A decision to hold the magazine would dramatically shift the timetables we used to bind both newsstand and subscriber copies.

For the first few minutes, the room buzzed with ideas about what we knew, what we didn't know and how we might deliver magazines as close to our regular schedules as possible. Everyone had a bunch of ideas, only some of them consistent with one another.

At moments like this one, I tended to slow down a bit. Not quite a newspaper, TIME was still a bit of a firehose when it came to new and conflicting data. It sometimes helped to back up and consider what other things might inform a decision.

When I'd first taken the job, the world was waiting to see what would happen after Iraq had invaded Kuwait. The United States and other countries had demanded that Iraq withdraw, and most observers thought that some sort of military action was imminent. The folks who knew when that might happen were understandably quiet about when and where things would commence.

In the weekly business at the time, the worst-case scenario for news coverage assumed a war started when the magazine was already on press. With presses running, data gathering and analysis would be impossible. Editors needed immediate estimates of how many copies of the magazine have been printed, bound and shipped.

To provide those estimates when time was (very) short, the production staff had compiled a binder that showed, hour by hour, the printing, binding and shipping data for each of the 18 printing sites around the world. That information was then used to estimate the cost and distribution effect of a decision to (literally) stop the presses and reprint parts of the magazine.

As it happened, we never wound up using the information in the binder. The first Gulf War started on a Thursday. Coverage went late that week, but we didn't have to recycle any paper.

For the better part of two years, the binder sat on a windowsill behind my desk. On that day in October 1992, still listening to my staff talk about the debate, I turned around and pulled it off the shelf. I asked everyone a question:

"Isn't this debate like the Gulf War, but we know when it will start?"

It took a couple of rounds of discussion before folks saw where I was going: take the print variable off the table, and we're left with a delivery challenge. And we'd already figured out how to shorten the delivery window, when we developed emergency plans in the event of a war that started on a Sunday.

At TIME, we spent the rest of the week putting all of those plans in place. The debate took place on Sunday night, and on Monday morning a TIME cover story ("The Homestretch: Clinton in control") appeared on newsstands in every major market in the United States. Most subscribers received their copies of this issue on their normal schedules.

I don't know what Newsweek spent that week doing, but they didn't come close to matching our delivery performance. It was a big win, relatively rare against a competitor that often moved faster than its older rival. We celebrated a bit and went back to planning for the next issue. Weeklies were like that.

I still have an artifact – a copy of the issue. In it, I appear in the publisher's letter, profiled for leading a department that essentially did its job, minimizing the time required to put writers' words into readers hands. I didn't quite know it, but the whole idea of lag time was about to change forever.

The next year, TIME first went online (in partnership with American Online, now Aol). Mid-decade, it was part of Pathfinder, a Time Inc. portal initiative. Though Time Inc.'s CEO once described Time Inc.'s Internet business as a "black hole", the genie was already out of the bottle. We were moving past a time when "the news" was defined as a physical recap of a specific period in time.

When I read of Newsweek's somewhat expected decision to give up its print version, I thought of this wonderful week in 1992. We purveyors of the physical TIME were so happy to have beaten the purveyors of the physical Newsweek (which we archly called "Brand X" inside the Time & Life Building).

For much of the last decade, though, physical weeklies have struggled to maintain relevance in a world in which content is available continuously. This has been presented and discussed as a business-model challenge: "People aren't willing to pay for content".

I may be in the minority, but I think that magazines like Newsweek and TIME have taught readers to devalue content. Favoring ad revenue and larger rate bases, magazines reduced the price of weekly and monthly subscriptions to unsustainably low levels. In a persistent economic downturn, ad revenues have weakened, fueling a vicious cycle.

I'm not part of the debate about whether "print is dead". As I've written before, it's a false argument. But for the most part, cheap print is dead. And Newsweek is an unfortunate example of cheap print.

I dedicated the first half of my career to perfecting the production and distribution of weekly magazines. The world changes. We no longer need staffs of dozens of people to minimize the time between when a writer writes and a reader reads.

We now live in a world in which print magazines are the embodiment of a "latency issue." That's a high price to pay just to have an artifact, even one with my picture in it.

A style note: I've been away from Time Inc. longer than I worked there, but I've never been able to shake an internal style norm that capitalized the names of the company's publications. Even in interoffice memos, TIME was TIME.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.