Does anyone remember the original TIME magazine?
I don’t. The first TIMEs shipped in the late 1920s – almost thirty years before my parents first opened their eyes and screamed out their existence to the hospital ward. I’m from the 90’s: generation Z, the Millenials, call it what you wish. My memories of TIME are boxes of thin, red-bordered magazines waiting to be dug out from under the bed. Throughout the 90’s, these boxes would grow, eventually invading my father’s prized collection of those beautiful 1980’s Reader’s Digests.
What amazing magazines they were. The 90’s, in my opinion, was a great period for writing. There was a great deal of technology flying around – the world was abuzz with possibilities. At the same time, the Internet was nothing like what it is today. It was a decade before analytics and hashtags and the relentless pursuit of traffic. People wrote longform – and you read it.
And TIME produced some magnificent writing. The world – or copywriters – seem to remember only Ellen Degeneres’ coming-out issue in 1997, but that was only one thing. TIME wrote about Soviet disunion. They wrote about Vietnam, 15 years after the war. They wrote about cutting down US military costs before it was cool. They wrote about Nixon, child soldiers, Nelson Mandela, the situation in Iraq – and that was just in one year. In 1991 they wrote about police violence; twenty three years later, Ferguson happened. 1992 – the year I was born – the covers spoke of mental illness, science and God, and Africa. They covered gender politics in 1994. I could go on, but you get the picture: they were bloody good. They brought important issues right to the front and talked about them.
Fast forward to 2015. I, like 8.2 million others, have liked the TIME Facebook page. I assume a good portion of us gets its updates. What we see is crap.
“Watch 14-year-old Amy Winehouse sing ‘Happy Birthday’.” “These Are The Best TV Shows Of 2015 So Far.” “These Are The 20 Best Cities For Singles.” “Here’s Everyone Who Died On Game Of Thrones.” “This Easy iPhone Trick Will Save You Tons Of Photo Space.” “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Men, Backed by Research.”
During Game of Throne’s Season 5 ending, all we saw were Game of Thrones spoilers and top-ten lists. What is this, Business Insider?
I get the strategy. The print magazine is still excellent. Despite massive losses in sales, layoffs and declining ad pages, TIME has gamely committed itself to brilliance in print – and it’s still delivering. The 3-point-something million readers still get their weekly dose of great writing and photography.
I can’t say the same about the website. Not only does the blatant clickbait completely shadow the good stuff (and there’s plenty of that, presented in that strangely ugly website), it’s also chipping away at TIME’s brand one sentence at a time. Sure, it brings eyeballs to the site. Those eyeballs may become conversions. If there’s one thing BuzzFeed has shown the publishing world, nothing brings clicks better than short, shallow posts on whatever Reddit is talking about right now. TIME is courting a black hole here: it risks becoming like every other clickbait operation on the Internet.
Is it worth it, though? Great content is not dead – take Aeon.co, the Verge. They run and they run well. In a world where everyone’s trying to out-BuzzFeed BuzzFeed, a few sites break through with excellent writing and smart marketing. On the other side, you have Business Insider – a site whose ubiquitous clickbait is more famous than its actual business articles. If this is TIME’s strategy, I think there will come a time, Kemosabe, when that iconic red border has no more value to give us.