Michael Elliot: He's having the Time of his life

It's a magazine that bestrides the world like no other title, seemingly impervious to change. But time moves on, even at 'Time', and the British journalist in charge of its international editions is quietly overseeing a revolution. He talks to Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Framed by the iconic red border, the lead story of this week's Time magazine is a 10-page analysis of China's emergence as the next superpower, written by a Liverpool-born former lecturer at the London School of Economics, who joined the news game as an afterthought.

Michael Elliott was not just the author of this global cover story, he also edited every edition of the world's most recognisable news magazine from Ireland in the west to Japan in the east.

He spends much of his life jetting between New York (where he lives), London (from where he edits the Europe-Middle East-Africa edition) and Hong Kong (from where he edits the Asia edition).

On the day we meet he is in his London office, which from his desk gives a view across the street to the Palladian magnificence of William Chambers's Somerset House. Elliott is less ornately presented, in a crumpled blue T-shirt.

It is the morning after the night before. Pneumatic drills are hammering away outside on the approach road to Waterloo Bridge and a number of desks in the building are unoccupied because their usual occupants are feeling the effects of an extraordinary party, held at the Royal Courts of Justice and attended by Bob Geldof, Cherie Booth and Mary Quant among others, to celebrate 60 years of Time magazine in Europe. Those who are nursing a sore head should try living life at Elliott's pace.

Only a few hours earlier he had been in Hong Kong, celebrating 60 years of Time Asia at the Ritz Carlton hotel with the likes of the former Philippines president Cory Aquino and the Indian politician and dynastic heir Rahul Gandhi. "I left that party at 10.45pm and rushed to Hong Kong airport to catch the 1am flight to London. I got a bit of kip on the plane, went to a hotel to get changed and then straight to the party last night."

He may have a strong constitution for partying but Elliott is a journalist of great distinction, perhaps the only one to have held senior executive positions at Time, Newsweek and The Economist, the three great English-language news weeklies.

The influence of Time, where he has been for more than five years, still takes him aback. "I wouldn't want to come across sounding arrogant but I've worked at a lot of places and I think it is astonishing how powerful this brand is and how you are able to get access to extraordinary people and persuade them to do stuff for us," he says, citing a recent article for Time by Jacques Chirac on the legacy of Charles de Gaulle.

Time does not shy away from popular culture. Elliott drools over an "absolutely fabulous exclusive interview" with Kate Winslet and, when the magazine drew up its list of the 60 greatest European heroes of the past six decades Johnny Rotten made the cut. But interpreting the news is Time's primary function. "I think coverage of the news is our lifeblood. That's the core mission, to report and analyse the really big news events."

As with this week's global cover story on China, he will take on major assignments himself. A cover story on the future of the Middle East, headlined "The Way Out... of this Mess" and showing a lone man trying to flee the rubble of Beirut, appeared under Michael Elliott's own byline late last year. The piece itself, preceded in classic Time fashion by three double-page picture spreads showing the human impact of the Lebanese war, ran to four pages of analysis, offered six "keys to peace", and was supported by the reporting of seven correspondents based in four bureaux around the world. This is the Time way.

"One of the traditional vehicles, going back to the days of Henry Luce [who founded Time in 1923], has been the multi-reporting piece pulled together by a writer, usually sitting in New York, from files that came in from across the world. This was a cliché of the Time magazine piece but I have written many cover stories just like that - and very proud of them I am," he says.

During his early adult life, Elliott, now 55, had no intentions of becoming a journalist. After graduating from Oxford University he became a lecturer, based at Northwestern University in Chicago and then at the LSE. He was 33 and about to accept a post with the accountants Deloittes as a management consultant when Andrew Knight, then the editor of The Economist, persuaded him to join his magazine. "He told me, 'you will make much less money but you will have much more fun', both of which were true."

He spent 10 years at The Economist, where he was the founding editor of the Bagehot and Lexington columns, and spent time as both the Washington bureau chief and the political editor. In addition, he worked as a presenter on the ITV current affairs programme Eyewitness, where his producer was Simon Shaps, now the director of television at ITV.

Elliott moved to Newsweek in 1993 and was editor of Newsweek International for five years until 2000 before switching to Time. Four years ago he was awarded an OBE for services to journalism. The high point in his reporting career was probably covering the 1992 American election campaign, in which he struck up a good rapport with Bill Clinton as he was swept into the White House. "We were very lucky in the fact that Bill Clinton actually liked The Economist." Elliott later made a film series for Channel 4 with America's then first family. Titled The Clintons, it received a BAFTA nomination.

He has more mixed memories of his involvement in the coverage of the Asian tsunami in 2004. Elliott was so close to the wave when it struck the coast of Thailand that Fox News described him as a "tsunami survivor", somewhat to his embarrassment. "I was playing golf. I was on the sixth hole - the tsunami was 300 yards away and I didn't even know it was happening. Our caddy became very upset and we drove back to the clubhouse where all hell was let loose."

After ensuring that his family was safe (they were staying in a nearby hotel), he realised that he had a job to do and organised the Time reporting staff into four teams based in Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. The resulting "special report" with a black cover and a headline that simply said "Tsunami, December, 26, 2004", alongside a picture of a woman grieving on a beach, ran to 33 pages. "Five minutes away from where I was staying there were scenes of complete devastation," Elliott recalls. "But I am immensely proud of what our reporters did that week. In the Asian edition we just took out the whole magazine."

Time is proud of its traditions and that includes making no attempt to hide its American roots, in spite of Elliott's task of selling the magazine in markets where mistrust of the US administration is widespread. "It is part of our DNA. Time is up there with Coca Cola and Disney as one of the great American brands. It would be madness to try and run away from that." He has spent most of his adult life in the US and speaks in an English accent with a slight American intonation. "We are an international news magazine and don't just write about America, although I hope we write about the United States better than anyone else."

Elliott does not oversee the US edition of Time (that most senior of roles is performed by the Time managing editor Richard Stengel) but he thinks that the magazine's US heritage is a key selling point for its international editions. "They come to us because they want an American perspective on international news and that's something we can give them."

Time was confident enough to include the victorious American general Douglas MacArthur in its list of the 60 Asian heroes from the past 60 years, crediting him for his role in helping build modern Japan after 1945. Time, as Elliott notes, is "by a country mile" the biggest-selling international publication in Asia, selling 300,000 copies a week.

An appearance on the cover of Time magazine, whether it's of an individual, an organisation, a movement, an event or a trend has long been, and still is, a statement of having arrived, of having made a mark in history. But although Elliott is looking for stunning photographic imagery or smart design ideas (such as a Russian wooden doll with a gag across her mouth to symbolise the crackdown on human rights under Vladimir Putin), he says that nothing quite catches the eye of the casual purchaser so much as the famous red lines that frame the front page. "The red border is like the Financial Times being pink. It's iconic. It says that the topic we have put on the cover matters because we are bothering to put this story within the red border."

This design feature was introduced by Time in 1927, four years after launch, and has only been dropped once, when a black border for the issue of the 9-11 attacks was deemed appropriate.

Another tradition is the "fact-checker", a concept little known in British journalism, where reporters and editors are expected to work without such a safety net. "We still absolutely do have them. You can go outside this room and find them - this is still a fact-checking publication."

Despite the value of its traditions, Time also realises that it must respond to the rapidly changing media environment.

"The magazine has changed dramatically. We are becoming more analytical, quite radically so," says Elliott. "Behind everything is new media. There are other factors, but I don't shy away from saying the influence of new media is a key driver in what we are doing."

As a consequence, Time's online offering, Time.com, was given a complete overhaul last week. "Part of our strategic thinking is to build up Time.com as our breaking-news vehicle and make the magazine the vehicle for analytical and reflective pieces," says Elliott. "We've got a global network of correspondents. We don't have the resources of the BBC or a wire-service such as AP or Reuters but what we can do is analysis. If people want to know what the North Korean nuclear tests mean we can give them smart analytical takes on that very quickly."

A key component of the new Time.com is The Ag (short for aggregator), a digest of the best stories gathered from news outlets around the world and compiled in, of all places, Cardiff, by a blogger and journalist, Matthew Yeomans, who aims to file in time for New Yorkers to get an early-morning take on what's happening in the world.

Elliott is not at all embarrassed that the digest works by linking the reader to rival providers. "We are not shy about using other people's stuff." He describes the commitment of a once-a-week news outlet to being a 24-7 source of information as a "step change".

"Like many magazines, we started off thinking the website would be essentially the magazine online. That's not enough. The website has to be shorter, faster and punchier but just as smart."

In an even bigger step-change, Time has, this month, switched the publication date of the magazine so that it comes out at the end of the week rather than the beginning. The change has been a major culture-shock to staff - who have had to adapt to the idea that their week no longer ends on Saturday evening but on Wednesdays instead- and is a response to the time-pressures on readers.

"The weekend is the time when people can give themselves a few hours to try to figure out what it all means. This is a fantastic time for weekly magazines," he says. Elliott believes the midweek deadline will force the magazine to step outside of the flow of news and take the analytical snapshots that readers crave.

In our cluttered and frenetic media environment, the relative tranquillity of the weekend could provide Time with the interlude it needs to demonstrate the continued relevance of a great publishing institution. Elliott himself has no such respite. His unique role requires him to straddle time-zones, covering a news patch that never goes to sleep. In the street, the pneumatic drill judders relentlessly, and Elliott remembers that he has a global magazine to edit.