Time Runs Out for Another Institution

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It's not just the dot-coms that are drying up and disappearing. Though 2001 is still relatively new, it's quickly turning into a pileup of problems for some veritable institutions as well. In a matter of weeks, we've lost Montgomery Ward, Oldsmobile and Time Life Books. The Time Life division, one of the new AOL Time Warner's first casualties, got the pink slip last month. Time Life Books was an early success story of direct marketing and was selling 30 million books a year during its heyday. The Washington Post published a tribute of sorts to the direct marketing division the other day. Intertwined with stories of its past grandeur, writer Hank Stuever told of how some of the division's most recent workers went about their jobs: Among its operators were "a small flock of punk rockers who lived in and around Richmond, VA, where calls were taken at the order center, and who all needed jobs with strange hours and where they could show up with green hair."

What happened to Time Life is similar to the problems that plagued Montgomery Ward, Oldsmobile, Life magazine, Woolworth's and so many others of yesterday's giants: They didn't change with the times. Stuever wrote that the Time Life division was "frozen in a '60s notion of the vast [Henry] Luce publishing empire." Even with Internet access, employees traveled back and forth to the Library of Congress to do their research. "Time Life Books was out of sync with the modern world. Instant gratification can be had through Google and Amazon. ... Grade-school reports have never looked better. We all know this isn't the same, not like those satisfying hours spent paging through the books, finding out stuff you weren't even trying to look up in the first place."

Did Time Life outlive its usefulness? Were children and adults alike no longer fascinated with tales of the Bermuda Triangle and Wild West gunslingers? Or did they no longer need to learn how to tile a kitchen floor or build a deck? Perhaps. But there's yet another marketing lesson to be learned here: If Time Life had worked harder to repackage its content and dumb down its topics, it could still be alive and well, battling those seemingly endless yellow "Dummies" and "Idiot's Guide" books for the No. 1 slot of the how-to world.

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