The Paperless Magazine? Well, Not Yet

Forgive the folks at Time Warner Inc.'s publishing company if they seem nonplussed by all the talk about electronic superhighways. It's not that the print types doubt that a revolution is on the way: Time magazine devoted a recent cover story to the subject. They're just not sure what firepower they bring to Gerald M. Levin's high-tech campaign. "There are no obvious answers or immediate directions to go in," says John Papanek, who was just named editor-in-chief of Time Life Inc.

Papanek should know. Until recently, his job was to find ways to channel Time's magazines into the parent company's multimedia pipeline. After a year of research, though, he came up with few proposals with any real revenue potential. Feeling stymied, Papanek asked to be moved to Time Life. The children's and educational books published by that division have more obvious multimedia applications. Papanek, who used to edit Sports Illustrated, believes magazines will someday be delivered in electronic form. He's just not sure when or how.

That's a common refrain among publishers and editors at Time Inc. Chairman Reginald K. Brack Jr. has handed Papanek's portfolio to another senior executive, Kelso F. Sutton. But he too is underwhelmed by current multimedia uses for magazines: "The ones I've seen so far seem kind of awkward," says Sutton. "Our task is to figure out how to bring these ideas to life."

The next step. For the most part, Time's efforts have been limited to CD-ROM technology. Working with sister company Warner New Media, Time recently released a video version of Clinton: A Portrait of Victory on CD-ROM. The book contains pictures taken by Time photographer P.F. Bentley during the campaign. The disk, which sells for $29.95 at computer stores, adds music and some video. It can be played on an IBM or Macintosh computer. Time also has produced CD-ROM products based on reporting from Time and Sports Illustrated.

The next step is to figure out how to deliver magazines via cable. Nobody believes viewers want to read People or Fortune on a TV screen. But Sutton thinks some of the magazines' service features can be reformatted and offered to viewers: As examples, he cites recipes from Southern Living, financial advice from Money, or home improvement tips from Martha Stewart Living.

In the meantime, Brack wants to further expand his print products into conventional TV. Several Time correspondents have lugged handheld cameras to interviews with notables such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The footage later aired on such programs as NBC Nightly News and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Brack values this mostly for the promotional value it offers the magazines, since it brings in relatively little in the way of revenue. The journalists are generally receptive as well. But Time Managing Editor James R. Gaines doesn't want such experiments to become intrusive: "The day our journalists start thinking about multimedia or synergy instead of magazines," he says, "we're in a lot of trouble."

Besides, Time Inc. has its hands full just competing in the regular magazine world. Brack stumbled in 1991 when he reorganized Time's sales force to promote the entire magazine group rather than individual Time titles. Some media buyers say that this particularly hurt magazines such as Sports Illustrated, whose ad revenues dropped 10.7% in the first quarter of 1993, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Brack has since restored the emphasis on titles. He acknowledges that ad sales are weak. But he notes that strong circulation gains boosted Time Inc.'s overall first-quarter income by 27%.

Gaines is also struggling to fix Time. The flagship magazine has gotten a cool reception from Madison Avenue since it underwent a controversial redesign last year. And rival Newsweek has made gains by contrasting itself with Time's somewhat softer image. Newsweek's ad revenue jumped 15.4% in the first quarter of 1993, while Time's slipped 1.1%. Now, Gaines is tinkering with the redesign by restoring a more conventional newsmagazine tone and revamping The Week, a collection of news briefs at the front of the magazine. Says Gaines: "I'd like to make it less of a rote summary."

He has ample motivation. Time staffers say Levin has told them the magazines have a place at Time Warner--so long as they remain editorially strong. Given their limited potential as multimedia vehicles, Time Inc. has to make sure its plain-vanilla products still pack plenty of flavor.

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