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Time’s Edward Felsenthal: We’re seeing a ‘drive to quality’

After years of being used to shore up its sister brands or deliver content at scale, Time will be charting its own course in 2019. The former flagship of Time Inc. was sold to Marc and Lynne Benioff for a reported $190 million this past fall.

The news weekly enters 2019 with every advantage: Operating in the black, owned by a benevolent billionaire and ready to expand its events, its video, and its content production. But it also faces advertiser aversion to news, stiff competition and the prospect of going it alone.

Digiday spoke to Time’s editor in chief and CEO, Edward Felsenthal, about how it will stand out for advertisers, what kinds of stories it will tell, and where the written word fits into its identity in 2019. The conversation has been condensed.

Time itself has been on a years-long transformation, one era of which ended with a change in ownership. Do you feel like the written word is key to the identity of Time still? Is Time still a content company?
Time is absolutely a content company, it will remain a content company. Writing is one core piece of what it means to be a modern content company.

But not the key piece?
It is one core piece. One of the things we learned this year, as we spent a lot of it in the sales process, is we haven’t been good enough at telling our own story. The sales process was about fully reporting out what Time was, what it is, and what it could be. Every group we presented to, came out excited — at different monetary levels — but surprised that Time isn’t what a lot of people think it is. The stories we told were that we’ve built a new foundation for this brand. We are, for starters, still the largest print player in news in the United States. And that’s writing, and foundational to everything we do.

It seems like traditional advertising is less interesting to marketers than ever. So now that you’re on your own, what do you see Time’s chief selling point being to marketers?
I do think we are seeing, and Time’s already experiencing this, if not a flight to quality, a speedy drive to quality.

But advertisers are still pretty allergic to news as a category, aren’t they?
That’s where Time has a built-in advantage. News is obviously core to our identity and core to what we do every day, but we’re different from The New York Times and The Washington Post. I think of our cover as a physical entity, but it’s also a metaphor for what Time can do that almost nobody else can do. When we put something within our border, that red one on our magazine or metaphorically, that topic is elevated. There’s this enormous interest in being associated with a trusted brand like ours, and going big on a topic of global importance.

So is it safe to say that the goal is finding additional tentpoles or sub-franchises to turn into axes for ad programs?
That’s oversimplifying it a little. We have this 96-year legacy of trust that is awfully hard to replicate in the world. And access. We profiled more than a dozen major world leaders over the past year. We have this opportunity to build out our franchises. Time Health’s a great example. It’s our fastest-growing product. When you put Time’s trust together with our health editorial, and deliver it to a targeted audience with a special interest in that topic, it works. It’s our fastest-growing new product, it’s got fantastic renewal rates. Right now it’s distributed to doctors offices but we’re getting all kinds of inbound requests for delivery in settings we hadn’t planned on. That’s an example of ways we can extend the Time brand.

If Time’s job is to weigh in on the national stories, it seems like the story of platform dominance is one that Time ought to weigh in on. Is that one you see Time covering this year?
It’s an area where all of us have a responsibility and an opportunity to tell it well and explain it well and hold these companies and platforms accountable. It is a story that has geopolitical significance. [The platforms are] amazing and positive in many ways, but the story’s got to be watched carefully. Time can play a role in that. And we’re going to focus on it heavily.

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