On a Thursday afternoon in October, Nancy Gibbs, who shattered a glass ceiling the previous month when she became the first woman to reach the top of Time's masthead, was sitting in the corner office she'd recently moved into on the 23rd floor of the Time & Life Building. Her bookshelf was only half-filled, but they were all presidential biographies and impressive reads about world leaders and executives and the like. Some houseplants and a vase of chrysanthemums showed she was trying to make herself at home.
The 53-year-old mother of two, with chin-length blonde hair and prominent, friendly cheeks, was talking about the challenges she faces as managing editor of a 90-year-old weekly news magazine that has seen better days.
"In order to grow, we need to be able to change," she said. "We need to stop doing things that it doesn't make sense to do, and start doing things that it does make sense to do. We need to divert resources into the areas with the greatest growth opportunities. We need to be much more nimble and entrepreneurial."
That need, some would say, is dire. Advertising revenue for the first nine months of this year clocked in around $245.2 million, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, down from $442.8 million in 2006, that moment of calm before an economic downturn that battered magazines and newspapers the world over. Time still makes money thanks to consumer revenues, but the finances have been trending closer to the red, according to sources with knowledge of the magazine's books. They cited deep frustrations with a sales side that has seen six publishers in as many years and a dramatic slowdown in RFPs.
"They're not even getting them anymore," one source told Capital. "They have to go out and hustle and explain why Time matters, why Time is still relevant."
Gibbs will have to do a bit of hustling and explaining, too. In lots of ways, she is not the obvious person for the job. An intellectual cultivated at Yale and Oxford and a lifelong Manhattanite, she's been at Time for 28 years. At 53, that's more than half her life. She embodies the legacy of Time in an industry where that word has become an epithet to describe moribund, slow-moving institutions. Skeptics might say she's a continuity executive cast in a change role.
But there are shockingly few skeptics to be found. According to people who have worked with her in the many functions she's performed at Time in those nearly three decades, Gibbs has a special sort of touch. And her supporters, who comprised the vast majority of the 20 or so people interviewed for this article, think it's one that, with a little push, could just keep the Gibbs-era Time on course to succeed.
TIME'S POWER AND INFLUENCE ARE NOT AS OBVIOUSLY MEASURABLE as they were during the glory days of the latter half of the 20th Century. The title is an anachronism to certain tastemakers looking down from the ivory towers of Manhattan media, a holdout from a dying breed of dinosaurs struggling to survive as newer or more adaptable species gobble up all of the news ecosystem's nutrients.
Ad pages are in peril. The digital strategy has lagged. Nor has the newsroom been impervious to the type of industry-wide bloodletting that's put scores of journalists back on the job market in recent years. And anyway, cynics might argue, who even looks at the thing anymore besides people sitting in the their dentists' waiting rooms?
Ken Doctor, a media analyst, summed up the state of Time like this: "It's still breathing, but it's not breathing deeply." That doesn't mean it's time to start working on the magazine's obituary. "This is the media cat that has nine lives," said Doctor. "It has great brand resonance. The question is, how do you harvest that?"
Time is the champion of a once mighty triumvirate of American newsweeklies. While advertising and print circulation have been shrinking (the latter to around 3.26 million copies on average during the first six months of 2013, compared to 3.39 million during the same period five years ago and 4.12 million in 2003, according to the Alliance for Audited Media), Time maintains a robust readership that dwarfs the scale to which its traditional rivals have been reduced—U.S. News & World Report to a little-talked-about website and Newsweek to a tablet-first digital title that is chic and conversation-starting by comparison but has a relatively modest subscriber base. The latter publication has set a cautious first-year circulation goal for its just-announced return to print, as an Economist-like "boutique" product, in early 2014: 100,000 copies.
Digitally, Time claims around 40 million monthly readers around the world, a global reach that founders Henry Luce and Briton Hadden wouldn't have imagined in their wildest dreams. Time hopes to capitalize on this audience in the coming weeks when it unveils a mobile-driven web makeover that will put hard news—and lots of it—front and center, as well as introducing new advertising units, according to sources familiar with the plans. One such innovation will allow brands to purchase separate columns that communicate with one another on the homepage, where paywalled magazine articles will mingle with free content including breakneck aggregation, feature stories, photos, video and interactive graphics.
The forthcoming relaunch has been months in the making. Earlier this year, Todd Larsen, the new president of news and sports for Time's parent company, Time Inc., greenlighted a significant infusion that has so far allowed Time to create 28 new editorial jobs (and four on the sales side) affiliated with the reboot.
At the same time, Time Inc. has cost-cut its way to stability. There have been multiple rounds of layoffs and staff reductions in recent years, one of which shaved at least six jobs from the flagship's newsroom back in January. Anxiety over further budget-slashing abounds. Early next year, in a move that mirrors a larger trend of media companies spinning off their troubled publishing units, Time Inc. will be jettisoned from Time Warner, the corporation that has nurtured it for the past 25 years. The separation means that titles like Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly (among 17 others that are part of America's largest magazine publisher), will finally get to reinvest in their own growth and spend money instead of beaming it back up to the mothership. The restructuring will also allow Time and its siblings to become leaner and more nimble and to more effectively exploit one another's talent and resources. On the other hand, it pulls the curtain back on a company that generated $440 million in operating income last year on nearly $3.5 billion in revenues and that is expected to lift off with a reported $500 million to $1 billion in debt. To put things in context, Time Inc. had more than $1 billion in profits 10 years ago.
One wonders what sort of agita those numbers are giving Joe Ripp, Time Inc's latest chief executive, and Norm Pearlstine, its newly anointed chief content officer. Both men are company veterans who rejoined the Time Inc. empire as it began revving up for Independence Day. (Pearlstine's late-October appointment, which dissolved Time Inc.'s editor-in-chief position, last held by Martha Neslon, signaled an historic departure in which managing editors like Gibbs now report directly to the business side.)
One also wonders what sort of radical proposals might be making the rounds in the c-suites. Some theories that were floated over the course of our reporting: Would it make sense for Time Inc. to create a single newsroom across all brands? Could certain titles cease to exist on paper? Might Ripp and Pearlstine be dolling up the company for a sale? Are private equity sharks swarming?
Whatever the case, one source with deep knowledge of the company predicted the following: "There will be a lot of momentum and urgency about cutting."
Which is to say that Gibbs' mission seems a Herculean one: To steer Time through uncharted waters, and to do so while grappling with headwinds stronger than those encountered by any of her recent forebears.
"This is a much different job than it was even three or four years ago," said Michael Duffy, a deputy managing editor based out of Washington D.C. who's worked closely with Gibbs (including co-authoring two books) since the mid 1990s. "She's now presiding over a magazine and a website that had 40 million uniques last month, plus a documentary unit"—Red Border Films, which launched in August—"plus tablet and mobile apps, a conference business, an education play with Time for Kids, just a much bigger operation. It's a challenge previous managing editors didn't have."
SOME OBSERVERS WONDER WHETHER A JOURNALIST so synonymous with the sacrosanct traditions of a print magazine is the best person to lead Time into the future. Gibbs may have even wondered this about herself. She twice declined offers from Rick Stengel, who was named managing editor in 2006, to become executive editor, and when she was approached again in 2011 to move over to the editors' bench, she was reluctant at first, telling at least one colleague, "I can always go back to my writer's cave."
But Gibbs was being groomed (the managing editor offer arrived on July 18, though it wasn't officially announced for another two months), and there's something to be said for having a top editor, especially during an era of dramatic change, who so deeply understands the central qualities of the Time brand.
"She brings to a period when you have to navigate tricky shoals, this kind of bedrock knowledge and commitment to attributes that have been with Time for a long, long time, and I think that's going to prove very useful," said Michael Elliott, who preceded Gibbs in her previous role as deputy managing editor. "Nancy's great skill is to have a really remarkable, close connection with Time readers. She just sort of intrinsically understands that at its best, Time speaks with this kind of aspirational, middle class, smart and engaged citizenry that wants to understand a little bit more about things they don't know an awful lot about."
During the 1990s, Walter Isaacson's Time chronicled an era when many of the important developments were happening outside of the headlines—shifts in demographics or technology or the economy, for instance. In the early 2000s, Jim Kelly inherited a book that would inevitably focus on some of the most tumultuous headlines in recent history, including two protracted wars and a terrorist attack that changed the world. Stengel's tenure brought an equally tempestuous news cycle, and he left his mark on the magazine by making it more cerebral, sophisticated and visually stunning, and by leading the title to top honors from the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2012 and 2013.
Gibbs isn't sure what her editorship will be defined by. But it's safe to say that digital innovation will have to play a significant role for her tenure to be considered successful.
Gibbs receives mixed marks in that department. Multiple sources familiar with Time's online trajectory over the years were surprised to hear that some of the newer recruits described her as being at the forefront of the publication's current digital push. Previously, they said, Gibbs tended to keep a safe distance from what was happening on the web, and there had been frustrations over what some colleagues saw as her apparent disinterest in contributing to time.com.
Of course that was before she became the person ultimately responsible for time.com. More recently, according to insiders, she's fostered integration by paying close attention to stories originally conceived for the website and giving them real estate in the magazine. She's a presence at most of the daily web meetings and digital staffers get the sense that she's deeply engaged with everything they're doing. It was Gibbs who gave the final sign-off on nearly all of the new hires in the recent expansion (in our interview, she cited talent poached from places like Buzzfeed, Gawker, The Huffington Post and Vox Media), and she has insisted that when new editors are hired, they should no longer be distinguished as either "print" or "web" people, the exception being her two main online lieutenants—Edward Felsenthal and Sam Jacobs, both late of The Daily Beast.
"Nancy is blessed with all the qualities to be a great editor of Time and a great leader of the Time brand," said Stengel, who was nominated by President Obama in September for a new job with the State Department. "She is part of Time's history but also understands that Time must chart a new course for the 21st century. I believe she will do so."
"I think it's always good to have an editor who has performed every trick in the playbook," said Isaacson, who is both a predecessor and a close friend of Gibbs. "I expect two things from her: The big bold story, which is the competitive advantage that a magazine has, and secondly, creating a sense of community. I think she will help bring digital journalism to the next phase, which will be a focus on community-building online."
"She's just a great journalist," said Josh Tyrangiel, who ran time.com before becoming the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Businessweek in 2009. "She's got tremendous instincts. She knows how to tell a story. Working in a newsroom, there has to be credibility at the top."
"I would have fallen off my chair if anyone else had gotten the job," said Elliott.
IN ADDITION TO HER JOURNALISTIC BONA FIDES, GIBBS is seen as a strong role model and mentor for Time's female employees. In a previous interview with Capital, she said that being the first female top editor of Time wasn't something she had given much thought to until it happened, and that her two daughters seemed so proud of her historic role.
She's embraced it, by now. One of the first things she did after being named managing editor was to assess the salaries of women within the organization and make sure those salaries were comparable with what men of equal stature were making.
"She did not have to do this. It probably didn't even behoove her to do it," said Mika Brzezinski, the co-host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," where Gibbs is a regular guest. "Nancy is the kind of leader necessary to complete the quest for equality in the workplace. She fights for it even when it doesn't apply to herself. She is the real thing.”
"Without question, this is a big milestone for women and for Time Inc. and Time magazine," said Stephanie Mehta, a deputy managing editor at Fortune. "We've had women running the business side, women editors atop different titles. But the news division titles have only ever had male editors. So for Nancy to break that glass ceiling, I think it provides a great road map."
Gibbs grew up in Stuyvesant Town, where her father, a longtime Boys Club of America executive who died in 2002, was one of the original, 1940s-era tenants of what was then an urban development project for World War II veterans. Her mother, a 90-year-old concert pianist turned psychoanalyst who sees patients to this day, still resides there.
But Gibbs and her husband, Waits May, whom she met on the Time softball team in 1988, have been Westchester residents since 1994, around the time a small fleet of New York media scenesters collectively fled Manhattan for the same tree-lined street in Bronxville. It became known as "Writer's Block" due to the abundance of journalists with homes there, including Isaacson (who got the ball rolling), Gibbs, John Huey, Priscilla Painton, Tim Smith, Amy Entelis, Dave and Sherry Westin, and Elisabeth Bumiller and Steve Weisman, to name a few. Gibbs and May shacked up in a 1922 center hall colonial. Weekend barbecues "could be very efficient," Gibbs recalled. "You know, the spontaneous backyard story conference."
Gibbs attended elementary and high school at Friend Seminary, a private Quaker school on 16th Street. She studied history as an undergrad at Yale and spent her summers at Chautauqua, an educational retreat nestled in the southwestern corner of upstate New York. Her first journalism job was writing for The Chautauquan Daily, a newspaper that existed only two months out of the year. Gibbs enjoyed the access it provided to prominent lecturers like Alger Hiss and Gen. William Westmoreland, even though she didn't see a media career in her future back then. "It was just a way better summer job than being a camp counselor or scooping ice cream," she said.
By 1985, Gibbs had a master's degree in politics and philosophy from Oxford and an itch to give professional magazine journalism a try. In Time, she saw a platform for "getting to watch events unfold over a period of days, as opposed to minutes or hours, and then taking a first crack out of making some sense of them," versus the more urgent meter of daily newspapers, which she found "too staccato, too incremental," or the comparatively sluggish pace of a monthly, which "felt too far removed from real time." She got her foot in the door as a factchecker and never looked back.
Today, Gibbs runs a newsroom free of the histrionics that some of her peers are known for. So undramatic is her approach that during a recent editorial meeting, while critiquing a homepage headline she thought was misleading, according to people who were there, Gibbs remarked to the offending party: "Why aren't you leaving this meeting to fix this right now?" Everyone burst out laughing, the joke being that she was paraphrasing a Jill Abramson quote from POLITICO's now infamous piece about the New York Times executive editor's reportedly "brusque" and "dismissive" management style. Gibbs, on the contrary, is known for her encouraging, almost motherly mien, though she can still gossip with the best of 'em or lay down the tough talk when a situation warrants it.
Gibbs has become an almost mythical figure at Time. Her cool-headed focus and borderline freakish ability to crank out eloquent copy under vein-popping deadline pressure has made her the magazine's most prolific writer ever. She's the Babe Ruth of the place, with a whopping 175 cover stories to her name, from a 9,588-word 9/11 opus written in a matter of days to last week's entry on the "Broken Promise" of Obamacare.
There's no question that a Time cover can titillate the chattering classes, as was the case with the magazine's viral Chris Christie treatment from the Nov. 18 issue: "The Elephant in the Room"—even if ex-Newsweek editor Tina Brown's notion of "buzz" is anathema in the newsroom of her erstwhile rivals.
But at its best, a Time cover can be much more powerful, and that's why Gibbs believes that the physical magazine, even with its migrating readership and plunging ad pages and declining prominence in the collective psyche of America, is so essential.
"There are very few institutions that can change the direction of a national conversation by virtue of the real estate we have inside that red border," she said. She cited Steven Brill's epic March cover story on rising medical costs as a "classic example" of a piece that ended up "changing the rules in Washington ... and there have been so many of those. When a lawmaker stands up on the floor of Congress, with a blown up image of Time's cover on military suicides, to argue for more funding for mental health resources for veterans, it's..."
She paused, looking for the right words to put her magazine's influence into perspective.
"You can't hold up a blog."