In remarkable moments throughout history, news organizations have been there to inform the masses and accurately chronicle what’s happening for posterity’s sake. This is a responsibility TIME magazine has been devoted to for 97 years.
The news magazine was a trusted source during The Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, 9/11 and countless other instances that have changed the course of history, and redefined and shaped who we are as people and a society. Now, as COVID-19 rips across the globe in its uncertain path of destruction, undoubtedly altering our course once again, TIME is there.
The now-independent brand began major coverage of COVID-19 on January 22, when Charlie Campbell reported from inside Wuhan, China, where the first known outbreak occurred, on what was happening in the wake of the its rapid, fatal spread. Pretty much since then, TIME has been committed around the clock and across the globe to staying on top of the deadly outbreak.
It’s part of a 97-year promise that CEO and editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, is accountable for keeping.
But in addition to overseeing TIME’s mission as a news organization, Felsenthal is also beholden to his staff, and keeping the business viable during an unprecedented crisis.
It’s an enormous undertaking, and one we wanted to learn more about. Felsenthal lent us some time, in between being a CEO, editor, husband, father and homeschool teacher, to tell us how he’s pulling it off.
Folio: What’s your game plan during the outbreak as a news organization?
Edward Felsenthal: It’s obviously the focus of just about everything we’re doing now. I see our coverage through four primary areas.
One is utility-focused health coverage. What can we tell our readers and broader audience about the nature of this virus? Where is it going? What can the experts can tell us? And what can we as a society do about it?
Two is holding governments accountable. Are China’s numbers believable? What took the U.S. government so long? Are they getting into gear now? What can we do as a nation about conflict and infighting among some cities and states without clearer federal guidance?
Three is how we help our audiences adjust to this and the way it’s affecting them now, beyond the health issues, as well as the rest of our lives. Help parents with homeschooling their children. Advise them on what to watch. How to get along with spouses. And guidance for the rest of the things in our lives while we adjust to our new normal.
Four is celebrating and reporting on the realities of the amazing frontline responders. It includes, of course, medical workers who are risking their own health and isolating themselves from their families. But also everybody in our society who doesn’t have the luxury of working from home but are serving society. I think there are some incredible stories there, inspiring stories.
Folio: With things changing so quickly and information evolving constantly, how are you ensuring your print magazine has value when it reaches its readers?
Felsenthal: Just getting the magazine out is an accomplishment. We’ve published our first two remote issues in our 97-year history. And both of those issues are good examples.
The first was “When the World Stops.” That includes covers from around the world, which I think is very moving. Images of the streets of China to the nursing home outside of Seattle, which was the first epicenter in the US. The intention of the content and the covers was to convey how connected we are in isolation. The content was designed to be a guide in navigating this crisis. No one knows yet how it’s affecting us, but we tried in that first issue to pull together what we knew, while acknowledging what we don’t know.
It’s a place where our brand plays well. We’re a global brand. We’re not coastal. Our audience is all over the country and across partisan lines. I felt we had an opportunity and responsibility to provide information. It was an important first step for us.
The next issue after that was interesting. We had this long-planned a special issue with José Andrés as a study of people around the U.S. who are coming together for the greater good. We wound up pivoting. And the timing was tragically perfect for an exploration of what brings people together.
Folio: How have you had to manage your resources through all this as a now-remote global business?
Felsenthal: We had some advance guidance in our Hong Kong bureau who lived this first. Also credit to Sue Suh, our chief people officer, and Janelle Miller, our director of global security. It’s been tough for us as it has been for everybody, but we had a remarkably smooth move to remote. There are challenges, many of them. But Sue and Janelle had us well organized. We are in constant touch on Google hangouts for our daily meetings and Slack. People in our business deal with stress by wanting to do what we can within our own field. So our team has really inspired me and the level of coordination and commitment has been extraordinary.
One of my big worries is that during the rush to do whatever we can to drive the coverage and have a huge volume of stories reported with excellence, we also want to make sure they continue to care for their mental health. This is stressful on our lives.
The team has been amazing. We had 63 million readers last month and more video consumption than we have ever had [82.7 million streams]. The results have been good.
TIME is pledging no layoffs for 90 days. We will also continue to ensure our hourly workers are paid while our offices are closed. Grateful for our immensely dedicated employees and the support of our owners Marc and Lynne @benioff in our mission especially at this moment.
— Edward Felsenthal (@efelsenthal) March 29, 2020
Folio: Obviously it’s early, but have there been any immediate impacts on your topline as a result of this?
Felsenthal: We haven’t seen it yet because we’re really in the early days. There’s no question that marketing budgets are going to contract. Barnes & Noble aren’t going to sell magazines for the time being, so obviously we’re going to see contraction in retail.
The flip side of that, and again it’s early, but we are seeing some upticks and we think that’s a result of the higher traffic.
The other area where I see some strength is with TIME Studios. There’s a huge interest because production has stopped with so many projects that have already been shot, and we have a couple of those ourselves, including something on the opioid crisis, we’re also doing a “Kid of the Year” hour with Nickelodeon and CBS at the end of the year.
The business is going to change for a lot of us.
Folio: You mentioned the large increases in digital traffic, how much of that is driven by non-coronavirus content?
Felsenthal: It’s very clear from the traffic and every piece of data we have that there’s no topic that has as broad or as voracious interest as the coronavirus.
We are continuing to cover the Presidential campaign. The economy and our culture coverage is in some ways more important than ever as people look for outlets. But almost everything is at least indirectly connected to this crisis. There will be a time hopefully in the not-too-distant future when the world will want to cover other topics. So we’re thinking about May and June and how we balance between this urgent crisis and people’s broader lives.
Folio: The human impact is obviously what’s most devastating in all of this, but as the CEO and editor-in-chief, what keeps you up at night?
Felsenthal: Getting all of our families and employees through this, and navigating this very strange moment in our lives and our business and industry. I think the world will get past this. It is going to change things in ways yet to be seen.
We have a 97-year-old brand and wonderful owners with a long view of the business. We have an opportunity to evolve our brand and business as the world changes. So we’re thinking hard on how we can serve our audiences and partners going forward in ways that address the needs of the moment. Our products are going to change. Nobody expected this, but we were well-positioned for this moment because we began an evolution last year when we pulled out of Meredith into our new ownership. This will accelerate and shift that evolution, but I think we already had the right mindset.
Folio: What else gives you hope during such a difficult moment?
Felsenthal: Journalism is more important than ever. Trusted sources are more essential than ever. So I think even as we go through what is inevitably going to be some tough times economically in our industry and beyond, it’s affirming to see how people turn to journalism in times of crisis. We make our share of mistakes, as does every other corner of government and the economy. It’s been disheartening to see the attacks on the media, but now heartening to see how people all over the world are looking to TIME and other great organizations, large and small, to guide them.