by Rory O'Connor
Rick Stengel is a man of nuance in an increasingly unsubtle media world. What's more, Stengel believes much of the rest of America stands with him.
"There are NOT only two sides to any issue," says Stengel. "How limiting is that? It's like the cable news channels - it's anti-nuance.
"Polarization is a myth created by the media and politicians," Stengel continues. "Most Americans are not pitted against each other, but instead can be found firmly in the middle. On most large issues --- the environment, civil rights for gay people, and so on - the country is more in agreement than ever before. But our political parties survive by pitting people against one another. That's anti-democratic, and it creates and perpetuates polarization. Then the media mounts its Punch and Judy shows."
As he is now the Managing Editor of Time, one of the world's largest magazines but one firmly rooted in Middle America, a lot is riding on Stengel's assessment. Can any newsweekly -- even the biggest kid on the block -- survive, much less thrive, in an age of instant, commoditized and free web feeds, 24/7 cable shout fests and a highly partisan and politicized blogosphere?
Time Inc., the world's largest publisher, recently put eighteen of its fifty magazines in the United States up for sale, and speculation continues to swirl about whether parent conglomerate Time Warner will soon sell the entire division. Stengel brushes aside questions about the future of Time Inc. as "above my pay grade," but there's no question he's under pressure to bring about change at Time magazine, and in a ‘timely' fashion. In order to do so, he's prepared to redefine our concept of news and perhaps shatter a few shibboleths while he's at it.
Asked why there is so little news in the newsweeklies, Stengel responds, "I'm not sure that's true. Step back for a moment...what is news these days? So much of what we call news is a just a commodity, and very disposable. Instead we want to give readers what they can't get elsewhere. We're in the business of providing news that stays news."
Stengel's banking on what he calls "informed opinion" to transform Time. "Not just 'opinion' such as what you get on cable TV," he explains. "Not useless 'analysis' made up of pure opinion with no information...but informed opinion with a strong, authentic point of view. Our reporters have experience, access, and knowledge. Their credentials, coupled with strong reporting, are what make their point of view informed."
Stengel offers star columnist Joe Klein -- a current bete noir among the more fevered liberals in the blogosphere -- as his exemplar. "Joe is special. He has a strong POV but it's always firmly based on reporting. And he's not dogmatic -- in fact he's quite contrarian -- and has no ideological matrix. That's why I like him, and I think that's the way most Americans are."
More recently, Stengel also reached into the blogosphere to pluck ex-Wonkette editrix Ana Marie Cox to write for him. Why? "Because she's smart about the Web, politics and the online community, fun, irreverent, and has interesting points of view and ways of expressing them." Take it as another sign that Stengel is prepared to move away from a steadfast reliance on objectivity while on the way to redefining news.
"The notion of pure objectivity is a myth and people are smart enough to know that," he states. "So objectivity? No. Transparency? Yes." He hastens to add that there's still "plenty of old-fashioned news and straight old reporting" to be found on Time.com, the magazine's web site that now draws three million unique visitors per month. Ironically, however, he also says the Internet is central to his vision of a new, improved Time, with its emphasis on informed opinion and news-that-stays-news.
"Look, the fact is that news breaks online now," says Stengel, who previously served as editor of Time.com. "Everyone puts it on line first now, and so will we. We have a 24/7 platform in Time.com, where we will offer all the values traditionally delivered by the magazine -- only all day, every day -- a big, blooming fusion of information.
"In essence, we're moving the magazine to the web, and everyone who reports here will need a web presence, whether it be a blog, a podcast, an online chat or q and a," he notes. "It's all just more arrows in the quiver. The technology is different, so new skills are needed -- but no one here should get intimidated or upset. Instead, it's an incredible opportunity for our journalists. Will they resist it or be fearful? Why would anyone trying to communicate with people be afraid of the Web? It's just another way of extending the information." Stengel says the "biggest issue facing me" is coordinating the magazine and the website, "and keeping the power of Time Warner across platforms with the same signature for everything we do, which is a smart way of explaining the world, and putting the news in context."
And how will Time Inc. make money on web?
"The old-fashioned way," he says. "Through advertising... The beauty of being online is that you can get direct metrics, not only of who's reading what story, but also who is viewing which ads."
Will Stengel succeed in saving Time? Only time will tell, of course, but his varied and unusual (for a leading media executive) background might help. Both an intellectual and a jock, he's a magna cum laude Princeton graduate who also played on its NIT-winning basketball team, and a Rhodes Scholar who studied English and History at Oxford and peppers his interviews with references to and quotations from the likes of Ben Jonson and James Madison. A consummate Time insider who started at the magazine in 1981, Stengel also has substantial experience outside the magazine, including one stint writing speeches for and dispensing advice to fellow Princeton graduate Bill Bradley during his failed bid for president, and another at the helm of the National Constitution Center, a nonprofit, non-partisan museum and education center that teaches the importance of the Constitution and civic engagement.
Most unusual of all, however, is Stengel's longstanding engagement with South Africa and its freedom movement. A co-producer of the 1996 Oscar-nominated documentary "Mandela," he also collaborated with the South African hero on Mandela's best-selling autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom." They became so close that Mandela became godfather to Stengel's firstborn son.
Speaking of godfathers, Stengel is also given to quoting from Francis Ford Coppola's film trilogy of that name. When Britain's Observer asked about "his fragmented, but successful career at the magazine," he explained by referring to Michael Corleone: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." And when asked how that happened, the answer is similarly sourced. "It was simple," Stengel explains. "They made me an offer I couldn't refuse!"
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Rory O’Connor is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. He is also president and co-founder of the international media firm Globalvision, Inc, and The Global Center, an affiliated non-profit educational foundation.