Time Magazine’s choice of the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as Person of the Year 2019 may be a symbol of old media’s dwindling influence. In the days of the hegemony of the printed press, this title was reserved for central figures in world-changing events. Now, with an aura of desperation, the title is given to a teenager fronted as a child soldier for climate catastrophism by grown-up, radical environmentalists.
The formerly illustrious magazine reached its zenith with the 1989 merger with Warner Communications, making it the largest media company in America. Then came the internet and things started going downhill from there.
In January 2000, just weeks before the dotcom bubble burst, Time Warner tried to be hip; merging with AOL in what is widely regarded as one of the worst mergers in U.S. corporate history.
It didn’t go well. When the financial crisis struck in 2008, Time lost many subscribers and, although it has somewhat recovered, the overall trend has been down. In October 2017, the publication cut its circulation by one third. In 2018, Meredith announced they would buy Time Inc., but only six weeks later, they announced they would re-sell it. Eventually, the magazine was acquired by Marc and Lynne Benioff for only $190 million.
Person of the Year
Time’s Person of the Year title has been given to influential world figures such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr. The list shows that the magazine has highlighted both good and evil people: Influence has been the selection criterion, not morality.
However, in recent years, the accolade has been given to either groups or individuals who would never have been considered in the past. 2017 saw the title go to “The Silence Breakers” of the #MeToo movement. In 2018, it was “The Guardians” – journalists who faced persecution, arrest, or murder for their reporting – and, now, in 2019, it is teenage climate activist Thunberg’s turn.
All of these recent winners have in common that they were briefly important in world news but – one could argue – ultimately made no real impact. The title has taken on the aura of a moralistic award rather than a recognition of influence.
The Readers’ Choice
Time published the result of its online reader poll, which showed that the readers have a far better sense of significance than do the magazine’s editors. According to Time, more than 30% voted for the Hong Kong protesters, while only 4.5% supported the climate strikers. People recognized the obvious: The protests in Hong Kong are historic and may alter the course of world politics.
In one sense, however, Time chose the right candidate. The magazine chose the candidate it wanted to be influential and ignored the one that it – along with all the intellectual elites of the West – didn’t want to succeed. In the end, Hong Kong may fall to communist tyranny. If the protesters fail, it will be because they received lackluster support from the West.
Time to Say Goodbye
Time used to be a vital magazine, writing about influential individuals shaping the world. As the publication sinks into the sea of irrelevance, it is increasingly writing about irrelevant topics. Perhaps it’s time to say goodbye?
Read more from Onar Åm.