FIRST LADY: Nancy Gibbs was named managing editor of Time magazine Tuesday, succeeding Richard Stengel, who was nominated on the same day for a post in the Obama administration at the State Department. Gibbs becomes the first woman to hold the post in the magazine’s 90-year history as Time Inc. also has its first female editor in chief, Martha Nelson.
When Stengel was brought back into the fold by then editor in chief John Huey in 2006, his mandate was to take the venerable weekly into the future — “The most trusted magazine in the world is about to become the most innovative,” read an ad from the period — in short, to keep it relevant within a turbo-charged news environment where Time, and other legacy publications, were no longer the last word on major news stories.
The magazine is still facing the same pressures, perhaps more so than then now a number of digital-native upstarts, Buzzfeed (launched that year) and the Huffington Post (launched the year before) are hogging a lot of the online traffic.
Gibbs’ first order of business, she said in an interview following her appointment, is a relaunch of Time.com in November that she said prepares it to fight off the competition. In the context of describing the new site, which is led by Edward Felsenthal, formerly of The Daily Beast, Gibbs also mounted a defense of the relevance of the weekly. As managing editor, she faces parallel pressures to grow online traffic without diminishing the print product, which still delivers the lion’s share of the magazine’s revenues.
“It’s true that part of Time.com includes just higher volume and velocity of news. But it’s exactly because there’s so much information out there that the cover of Time is more powerful. There are fewer places for any kind of broad national conversation — we’ve been splintered into so many news silos. If anything, the power of the cover of Time has increased as the media landscape has atomized,” she said.
Gibbspointed to an interview on ABC News’ “This Week” where President Obama was asked about Time’s most recent cover on the failure of Wall Street reform. “You can’t be more agenda-setting than that,” she said.
On the other hand, Time has also recently been criticized for not being ahead of the revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the biggest national security story of the year. Barton Gellman, a contributing editor at large at Time, instead broke a series of Snowden stories in the Washington Post, where he also has a nonexclusive contract.
Gibbs said the magazine has covered Snowden even if Gellman felt a daily was a better fit to break news.
“I would say stay tuned,” she said, referring to future stories from Gellman. “We still have a good relationship with [Gellman]. He has said that what he had was more of a newspaper story. He is still very much part of our family.”
Gibbs, 53, who started at the magazine in the late Eighties, has been informally leading Time since July, when Stengel informed Nelson he was a candidate for a position in the administration and stepped back from his regular duties. She has been the heir apparent since 2011, when she was named deputy managing editor. In naming her to the post, Nelson emphasized Gibbs’ digital credentials — she oversaw the magazine’s transition into a digital newsroom and played a leading role in the relaunch of its mobile site. Nelson also underscored the new demands facing “brand editors.”
“Time as a brand remains powerful, but it has to be powerful and relevant in every platform,” Nelson said. “As a Web site, can we do more? And can we do better? That’s where [Gibbs] and [Felsenthal] have already begun to work.”
Gibbs said her role is different from her predecessors in that she is going to be devoting more time to efforts online, which include, in addition to the site relaunch, a new video unit, because more of her audience is digital.
“In one sense, we’ve been liberated. The frustration we always had in my day, especially with a story moving under your feet, is that we only got one chance a week to capture it,” she said. “The Web was liberating in the sense we could just be faster. By and large, even the old-school writers were increasingly excited when they realized not every story had to be the perfectly honed Time cover story that you worked on for weeks.”
Gibbs is coming to the job at a sensitive moment for the company, still the largest magazine publisher in the country, but humbled by declines in its traditional business and turmoil in the management ranks. In the first quarter, Joe Ripp, the fifth chief executive officer in three years, will take Time Inc. public.
Nelson said the pressures facing Time Inc. as a company are no different from those in front of the entire industry.
“Nobody is immune from pressure,” she said. “It’s just the business we work in. If you’re not ready for a lot of change, and a lot of challenge, you shouldn’t be in our industry. Is it more from Time than anybody else? I don’t think so.”