Time.com goes live, testing the future of a brand with a past

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The new Time.com. ()
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After months of delays, Time is rolling out its much-anticipated web redesign.

The digital makeover had originally been scheduled to land in autumn of 2013. Then it was bumped to December. Then January was the target. Then February. And finally, the evening of March 5.

Why did it keep getting pushed back? Partly because they wanted the relaunch to coincide with a cross-platform content extravanganza that takes readers 1,776 feet up in the air to the very top of 1 World Trade Center, where Time photographer Jonathan Woods was given exclusive access to the antenna (or spire) that makes it the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

With a time stamp queued up for Thursday morning, it's basically Time's "Snow Fall": The 3,200-word cover story tells the tale of the mind-blowing construction of 1 World Trade (the feature is live here: http://time.com/world-trade-center/). The web component, a multimedia site called "Top of America," features a 360-degree interactive photograph that's as fun to play around with as it is sweat-inducing for anyone who suffers from acrophobia or motion sickness. There's a short documentary on the ironworkers who built the massive structure and a video about how Woods got that rare photo at its  summit. The corresponding print edition features a three-page gatefold cover, the first in Time's history.

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How is Time planning to make money on all of this? Advil is the exclusive sponsor. A 128-page softcover book about the project will be published in April ($13.99), and Time will be selling prints of Woods' panoramic photograph with a portion of the proceeds going to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum ($24.99-$99.99).

"This is about 50 different firsts," said Time managing editor Nancy Gibbs, who gave Capital a preview of the new time.com on Monday along with digital managing editor Edward Felsenthal and head of product Daniel Bernard. "This is really an example that showcases better than anything both the access Time has" and the various platforms on which the publication can execute ambitious journalism.

"Top of America" is at the heart of a major digital overhaul that was set in motion about a year ago when Todd Larsen, an executive vice president at Time's parent company, Time Inc., green-lit a cash infusion that has resulted in significant new resources for the publication's web operation, including three dozen new hires.

With ad pages and print circulation on the decline, digital growth is seen as key to Time's long-term survival. M. Scott Havens was recently hired from The Atlantic to oversee digital strategy for Time and several sister brands including People and Entertainment Weekly.

As Time Inc. prepares to be spun off from Time Warner with a whopping $1.3 billion in debt, shareholders will be looking for signs—outside of the company's print stable—that this is a brand with a bright future.

"The relaunch is important symbolism for the new standalone Time Inc., even if People and Entertainment Weekly wield bigger business impacts," said Ken Doctor, a media analyst. "The big question: is this just one more change in a declining legacy brand, or the beginning of something new that can make a future?"

If the relaunch is a hit, it will reverse a perception that Time has been late to the party in terms of digital, and that it still hasn't quite figured out what its website is supposed to be after going through various permutations over the years.

There are skeptics, to be sure. One source familiar with the digital operation noted that in addition to the hiring spree, there's also been a significant amount of churn to the staff of time.com, which has seen at least a dozen departures since last April.

And while Time says it has broken traffic records during eight of the past nine months—with total monthly visitors as of January up 118 percent year-over-year to 23 million, according to comScore, video streams up 860 percent year over year and traffic from social up 284 percent, according to Omniture—some insiders wonder whether time.com is chasing pageviews with a high-volume, search-optimized strategy primarily executed by a continuous news desk that was created in summer 2013.

Felsenthal dismissed the suggestion that quick-hit aggregation was in some way subsidizing the site.

"If you really look at the analytics, the opposite is in many ways true," he said.

"There isn't a gimmick to this," said Gibbs, noting that short aggregated bursts can get as much traffic as a high-tech interactive graphic or a lengthy Steven Brill feature about the fixing of healthcare.gov. "There isn't any one secret formula, like, 'Oh now that we're posting a lot of cat videos we've increased the traffic.' The growth has really been organic and it's really reflected everrything we're doing."

The new site, designed by the New York-based digital production studio Big Human, is "much more up-to-the minute," said Gibbs. "We wanted a site that reflected both the quick, constant news coverage as well as the medium form, the long-form, the galleries, all the different story-telling platforms."

The homepage has a left rail featuring the latest stories and breaking news. At the center of the page is "The Brief," with the 12 most important stories of the moment. (There will be a corresponding daily email newsletter with a million subscribers at launch.) Stories from "The Brief" also travel to the left-hand side of article pages to accommodate social traffic patterns; about half of time.com's traffic comes from mobile, which is reflected in the responsive design. The right rail of the homepage is where you'll find all the columnists, graphics, interactives and other fun stuff. Magazine content will remain paywalled, according to a spokesperson.

In addition to Advil, the other launch sponsors are Citi and Siemens. Traditional ad placements have been moved into the left rail for better visibility, and brand-conceived native stories, designated as "Content From," will be integrated into the infinite content scroll with a different design template than editorial content. The new site also features a "magnetic ad" unit that was developed in house, in which a box in the left rail interacts with a larger placement at the bottom of an article page.

Jed Hartman, group publisher of Time, Fortune and Money, said one of the advantages of having a completely re-engineered website is that "we can make sure all of the trending ad product"—from native to new locations for display to shape and size flexibility—"is built into the ground floor rather than retro-fitted. ...  We have incorporated it at the very beginning."