At the beginning of March, TIME celebrated its centenary. 100 years after the first TIME magazine was published in New York City on March 3rd 1923, the publication has undergone a number of transformations in order to keep up with the rapidly evolving landscape. But its longstanding reputation has also played a part in helping it survive some of the more turbulent conditions in recent years.

TIME’s Executive Chairman (and, until this week, former Editor in Chief) Edward Felsenthal joined Media Voices the week of the publication’s centenary. He has been at the helm of TIME for a decade, including overseeing bringing together the print and digital teams together into one digital-facing presence. Felsenthal believes that TIME’s legacy has played a strong part in helping the title weather the last 100 years.

Changing the narrative around ‘legacy’ publications

The term ‘legacy publication’ often conjures up an image of a once-great media behemoth which thrived during the ad-rich print heydays of last century. The past two decades has seen many of those businesses struggle to keep up with the break-neck pace of digital publishing, where revenue streams are fickle and the promise of reaching millions upon millions of people often comes with little financial reward.

Some, however, have battled through the early 2000s with enough brand recognition and money in the bank to be able to reshape their businesses – and even make mistakes along the way. TIME’s original parent brand Time Inc was a victim of this period. It was split off from Time Warner in 2013 into its own publicly traded company to allow focus on the print media business. 2017 saw the company acquired by Meredith Corporation for $2.8 billion, while TIME itself was then re-sold in 2018 to Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff and wife Lynne. 

“For people who themselves want influence or to sustain viewpoints or political, cultural or scientific platforms – magazines may be lower cost and also more likely to survive longterm,” commented Flashes & Flames founder Colin Morrison. “You can see that the $190m paid by [Benioff] for the legendary 97-year-old TIME magazine would not get him a newspaper anywhere near as influential – or as likely to be sustainable.

Little remains of Time Inc; the UK version absorbed into Future plc after being acquired and rebranded to TI Media by a private equity firm, and the surviving US titles acquired as part of the Dotdash Meredith merger in 2021.

But TIME magazine continues, with Benioff taking a hands-off approach. Now, the word ‘legacy’ is used by the publisher as a positive description.   

“Everywhere you go in the world, people know [TIME], and it means something to them. And that’s special to all of us who work here,” Felsenthal commented. “We have audiences all across the country and across ideological lines, which is increasingly unusual. And then we’re also truly global. There aren’t many publications that are that well known and that are truly global in a way that [TIME] is.”

What a 100-year-old title has which start-ups often don’t get is audience trust. “Trust is so valuable and increasingly rare in our world,” said Felsenthal. “We’ve got 100 years of it that nobody can replicate.”

Felsenthal has worked on legacy brands like Conde Nast and the Wall Street Journal as well as co-founding digital news site The Daily Beast, which launched in 2008. “We all thought the future [was] these digital start-ups,” he told us. But now, many of those same pureplay digital media brands are struggling.

“Part of what we’ve seen in recent years is that legacy is not a bad word. It’s a good word. It’s a positive. Of course, there’s plenty of room for exciting, innovative new players. TIME emerged as an innovator in 1923 – it was the upstart of its day, and there is plenty of room for that. But I think we’re seeing the value of legacy media players, because legacy in many cases – and I think certainly in our case – means trust, and trust is valuable and rare.”

Thriving as a generalist publication

TIME’s long standing reputation also helps it stand out in a market which newer players have found very difficult to build audiences in: generalist publishing. Many of the digital pureplays ended up caught in  the ‘mushy middle’ as Digiday once branded it: not quite niche enough to be essential to a small group of readers, but not quite big enough to compete at scale. TIME’s legacy has meant it has avoided this particular trap with a global – and more importantly – a loyal audience.

“We are at the centre of… a fast expanding, complex information ecosystem. We are many things. We’re news, yes. But we’re information,” Felsenthal explained. “There are a lot of publications that are specifically about business, or specifically about health, or specifically about entertainment in Hollywood. We are about everything. We are a guide, we are a trusted guide to the world around us and into events as they unfold.”

This plays out particularly in TIME’s event strategy, where the appeal to attendees is less in deep verticals and more in meeting a wide range of people. It’s an area Felsenthal said TIME’s owners have encouraged expansion. 

“What’s particularly special about our events is that we bring together people from across the globe and from across fields,” he noted. “There are lots of events where the actors are all together, or events where the athletes are all together, or the business people are all together. 

“Our events, because of the nature of our brand, bring together athletes and astronauts and activists and scientists and political leaders and business leaders, and they have the opportunity to share learnings. Because every problem today is multi-dimensional, multi-sector.”

Felsenthal believe’s TIME’ secret sauce is in drawing all this together: the brand’s long history and the trust it has built up over 100 years, the credibility a legacy like that brings, and also appealing to such a wide range of people. “We have the power to bring those people together,” he said, in no doubt that the title will be around to celebrate its 200th birthday.

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