Banter With the Beast: Nancy Gibbs, 'Time's Woman of the Year
The magazine’s first female managing editor talks to Lloyd Grove about spinning off and the future of news.
Time’s Nancy Gibbs, who this week was appointed managing editor, the first woman to run the 90-year-old newsmagazine, formally inaugurated her reign with a cover story on how an Internet giant is launching a new health venture that it hopes will discover ways to slow the aging process. “Can Google Solve Death?” the cover line asks. But here’s a more pressing question for Gibbs and her colleagues: Can Google—or anyone, for that matter—solve the death of the newsweeklies?
“That’s not a problem that needs solving,” Gibbs insisted on Thursday, as Time staffers demanding her attention began to accumulate outside her office door. “They’re not dying. At least this one isn’t. I’m always a little bemused by the whole ‘death of newsmagazines’ thing. In his wildest dreams, Henry Luce wouldn’t have had the audience we have. It has never been bigger.”
Still, Gibbs is taking over at a particularly anxious moment. Time’s historic competitor, Newsweek, went digital and ceased printing a U.S. edition this year, and was recently sold off by IAC (parent company of The Daily Beast) to IBT Media. U.S. News & World Report went from weekly to monthly to online only. Time, which retains a paid circulation of around 3 million in print and on tablets, is reportedly struggling financially, and staffers at the magazine, along with the rest of the Time Inc. publishing unit, are bracing to be spun off in a few months from their parent company, Time Warner. A prospective sale to the Des Moines, Iowa-based Meredith Corp. (which included the cash cow People but not the less financially attractive Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, or Money) fizzled in March.
Time Inc., whose profits have been robust but in steady decline, has been plagued by layoffs and buyouts in recent years. Yet Gibbs said she takes comfort that Joe Ripp, Time Inc.’s third chief executive in as many years, has told her that he values her magazine as a key part of the publishing unit. Time in recent months has gone on a hiring spree for its digital and video journalism on Time.com, which Gibbs says attracts around 30 million unique visitors monthly.
“I’m sure there’s anxiety about the spinoff, because no one likes any kind of uncertainty,” she told me. “But there is also a very strong case to make that this is exactly what we need in order to be even stronger.”
She continued: “With the spinoff, we really do control our own fate. We don’t have to send all our revenue back to the mother ship. Yes, we’re going to have to pay down debt, and yes, we’ll pay a dividend, and yes, we’re going to have to be good stewards of our fortunes. But we finally have a chance to say: where are the opportunities? We get to really think about: what else should we be doing? Where else could we be going? What kinds of businesses should we be launching? This is an extraordinarily strong brand—a word I don’t particularly like when talking about these institutions. But Time is an immensely strong global brand.”
Gibbs, 53, who until Tuesday was Time’s No. 2, has been effectively running the magazine without the exalted title since July, when Rick Stengel, after six years in the top job, gave up his duties to prepare for his nomination by President Obama for the position of under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. As the magazine’s most prolific writer—Gibbs has authored 174 cover stories so far, a record—she initially resisted the idea of becoming a manager, laughing at John Huey when the then–Time Inc. editor in chief proposed it, but eventually succumbed.
The legendary Luce—who with his fellow Yalie Briton Hadden invented the newsmagazine form, and even invented the word “newsmagazine”—might not have envisioned “in his wildest dreams,” as Gibbs puts it, the multiplatform colossus that Time has become. But he also could have not imagined a female in charge. Gibbs said her two daughters, 16 and 18, were thrilled with her promotion, and she realizes that she’s a role model. “I hope to be a good one,” she told me.
When she arrived as a lowly fact-checker 28 years ago, under managing editor Ray Cave, it was a hide-bound, male-dominated, hierarchical bureaucracy. Women were a presence (Pulitzer Prize winners Maureen Dowd and Michiko Kakutani, among others, had honed their craft at Time), but not a power.
“It was a very top-down culture,” Gibbs said. “The managing editor was the supreme commander. Our stories still go through multiple rounds of editing, but the process was even more formal. And the ideas and direction of the magazine were really in the hands of the top editors. Any editor is crazy to think that he or she is going to have all the good ideas. You’ll never get an interesting magazine or website if one person is responsible for dictating all of it.”
When Gibbs first tried her hand as a Time writer, she had to keep it under wraps, she recalled. “It was illegal at the time for fact-checkers to also be writing stories,” she said. “In a way, I was lucky in being stationed in a guerrilla outpost. I was a fact-checker for Time International, working on the European and Asian editions. What that meant was international editors were eager to run as much original content for an international audience as possible, so fairly quickly they allowed me to start writing. Those stories only appeared in Time Europe or Time Asia, so they sort of flew under the radar.” But by 1988, she was writing her first cover story. “It was about the age wars—the tension between how much we spend on the elderly and what we spend on children,” Gibbs recalled. She happened to be in Los Angeles when the story closed and didn’t see the cover art until the magazine hit the newsstands. She was, as they say, shocked and appalled at how her bosses had trivialized an important subject. “It looked like two old people in Heaven—an elderly couple in track suits with towels around their necks and the cover line was ‘And now for THE FUN YEARS!’ It was pretty mortifying.”
So did Gibbs complain to Henry Muller, the managing editor at the time?
“Oh my, no! No, no, no, no, no!”
She added: “One of the things that is fundamentally different today is that we start out with meetings of writers and editors together, figuring out the day, what angle are we going to take. It’s much more collaborative, much less top-down, by far.”
Meanwhile, given the tough challenges she faces, it’s probably a source of strength that Gibbs comes out of a strong religious tradition. “I come from a long line of elders and deacons in our church,” she said. “My uncle was a Presbyterian minister and my mother an elder.” Her spiritual beliefs inform her journalism to the extent that “I’ve never liked any kind of reflexively cynical impulse, partly because I think it’s intellectually lazy,” she said. “I’m a great believer in the value of skepticism and, as a religious person and as a journalist, I think we have to be skeptical. I don’t think we have to be cynical.”
Will Time under Nancy Gibbs prosper? Let us pray.