Editor’s Note: Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni talked with Rick Stengel, TIME’s managing editor. This interview is hosted on MrMagazine.com, the resource center for magazine industry news and insight from the one-and-only, “Mr. Magazine™”.
President Barack Obama is TIME’s Person of the Year 2012. That is no longer a secret anymore. However, one may ask, with the current status of print and digital, “would TIME magazine have as much an impact if it was published in a digital form only? Luckily, we’ll never have to find out. According to managing editor – Rick Stengel – print isn’t going anywhere.
In an audio interview with Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, Rick Stengel, TIME’s managing editor reveals the reasons behind picking President Obama as the Person of the Year and how this choice today is different than that of 2008. Stengel also shares his views on the future of paper, the reasons behind changing the color of the trademarked red border of TIME and the importance of the brand as the center of everything they do and produce at TIME.
In typical Mr. Magazine™ Interview’s style, first the sound bites, followed by the audio interview, and then the very lightly edited transcript with Rick Stengel.
On how easy it was to choose President Obama as Person of the Year: Well, it’s never an easy decision and in some ways the thing that makes it a hard decision is you can always choose the president of the United States.
On why Obama was chosen: We chose him because, if you look back at 2008 when he was Person of the Year, a lot of people thought, ‘Boy, this is a once-in-a-lifetime change, it’s an anomaly, it’s lightening in a bottle,’ as he called it, and what I think we saw this year was readifying the changes in America.
On the cover photo: We wanted to show him in a way that he hasn’t been shown before.
On whether or not a “digital-only” Person of the Year would generate as much of an impact as print does: Well, I think you know, Samir, that I think the paper product will never go away.
On changing the color of TIME’s border for this issue: The issue is special and it makes it feel even more commemorative than it is, and I just thought it was a great and interesting way to go and I hope it’s successful.
And now for the audio interview:
And now for the lightly edited transcript from the interview with Rick Stengel, managing editor, TIME.
Samir Husni: My first question to you is how easy was it to choose the president as the “Person of the Year,” on a scale of 1 to 10?
Rick Stengel: Are you comparing it to other choices for “Person of the Year,” or just a relative scale of easy versus a hard decision?
Samir Husni: As easy versus a hard decision.
Rick Stengel: Well, it’s never an easy decision and in some ways the thing that makes it a hard decision is you can always choose the president of the United States; you can almost always choose the president of the United States during an election year, but I thought that he was really on to something that was new and different and we can talk about that in a second, and it was a relatively hard decision. I’d say it was an 8. How about that?
Samir Husni: Okay. So, why did you choose him?
Rick Stengel: We chose him because, if you look back at 2008 when he was “Person of the Year,” a lot of people thought, ‘Boy, this is a once-in-a-lifetime change, it’s an anomaly, it’s lightening in a bottle,’ as he called it, and what I think we saw this year was readifying the changes in America. Because what he really is, is this architect of a New America, and what I mean by that is if you look the so-called coalition of the ascended: the people who voted for Obama, minorities, Hispanics, millennial, college-educated women, these groups are the groups that are making America now and making the next America. He is their symbol and their champion, and in some ways, the creator of these groups as political coalitions in America. And so, in many ways I kept wanting to call it Barack Obama is the “Person of the Year” and Barack Obama and the making of the New America. That to me is why he was “Person of the Year,” and I think everything we have seen since the election and with Hurricane Sandy and the dreadful, dreadful events in Newtown, Connecticut, we see him stepping up in a way didn’t always see in the first term. He’s more confident, he’s speaking with more clarity, speaking more from the heart about the things he really believes in, and I think that’s what people were waiting for, and in so far as “Person of the Year” it looks both backward and forward. He’s going to be around for a long time. He’s creating this New America and this new coalition and this new realignment in our political sector and that will have repercussions for decades to come.
Samir Husni: Why the picture? One of my colleagues commented that the president looks like a Roman senator on an old coin?
Rick Stengel: That’s not a bad analogy. We wanted to show him in a way that he hasn’t been shown before. Look, he’s probably the most photographed man in the universe. And we got Nadav Kander, who is a U.K. based photographer, who actually did our Mohamed Morsi cover from a few weeks ago, because A – you don’t have much time with the president and B – I wanted an image that didn’t look like anything else, and that looked special. And I think the tone of it reflects the tone of the country now, particularly the tone post-Sandy and post-Newtown. He looks determined and deliberate. It’s a quiet image. And I think that it will become one of the iconic images of President Obama for all time.
Samir Husni: Since you mentioned the word iconic, do you think the print component of TIME’s Person of the Year, or any other iconic issue that you produce; would it generate the same buzz and have the same impact if it was only digital?
Rick Stengel: Well, I think you know, Samir, that I think the paper product will never go away. I think it simply becomes a more premium, more lux, even more desirable, more expensive product that is part of this total brand of Time, so that for a digital subscription, you might also get a paper subscription, for a higher price, that is. Again, I just don’t think that print is going away, particularly for upscale publications that people like to have on their coffee tables, like to have in their homes and like to be able to carry with them. As you know, a magazine is more portable than an iPad. So, I think everything we do revolves around the brand at the center, and one of the spokes of the wheel is the print product, like the iPad product, like Time.com, like what we do for mobile, what we do for phones and you can have just one, or you can have them all and there is a subscription price that would include everything, and there’s a subscription price that would include one thing. So, that’s a very long answer to your question, because I think it’s a kind of false choice in a way, because I don’t think the physical magazine itself will ever go away.
Samir Husni: Having said that, I’ve noticed that this is the fourth time in the history of TIME magazine that they’ve changed the color of the border from red to silver?
Rick Stengel: We’ve changed it a few times and part of it had to do with when we looked at Nadav’s picture, it looked even more beautiful and special in a silver border with a silver logo. And also this is the first time in an issue that we have four subsequent internal covers that have the traditional red border and red logo, that it just made the whole thing feel special and “Person of the Year” is special. The issue is special and it makes it feel even more commemorative than it is, and I just thought it was a great and interesting way to go and I hope it’s successful.
Samir Husni: One final question, on the lighter aspect, what did you think of Mad Magazine choosing Tina Brown as the Person of the Year in their parody issue?
Rick Stengel: Well, that’s the first I’ve heard of it, Samir, to tell you the truth. I don’t know anything about that.
Samir Husni: Thank you.