How Time Got Hooked on NFTs

Inside the crypto skunkworks set up by magazine president Keith Grossman, who has turned a personal passion into a new revenue line for the sober news chronicle

After a Nyan Cat NFT sold for the equivalent of $1.2 million in February, the owner of Time magazine, Salesforce billionaire Marc Benioff, brought up NFTs with CEO and editor in chief Edward Felsenthal and president Keith Grossman. “I looked at it, and I was like, ‘We could do this,’” Grossman told Off the Record. “They said, ‘How?’ And I said, ‘Trust me on this one.’”

“It was the first time,” he said, “where I saw a true personal passion connect with my professional responsibility to evolve Time.” In 2013, Grossman was an associate publisher at Wired when the editors asked him if they could set up a rig in the office to mine bitcoin. Though they subsequently destroyed the bitcoins they’d mined (which today would be worth more than $800,000), the experience hooked Grossman on the possibilities of the blockchain, and he started buying cryptocurrencies. 

Until August, Time’s NFT team was limited to Grossman, creative director D.W. Pine, and the lawyers. According to Grossman, there wasn’t even anyone else handling the technical side of making the NFTs. “I was the one doing the minting,” he said, “because I really wanted to learn everything about it.” They started with one-offs, including a collaboration on a cover with the artist Beeple. The NFT of it initially sold for the equivalent of just over $320,000 and recently resold for the equivalent of more than $2.4 million. They also sold an NFT of the first cover of Time, which they bundled with a physical copy of the first issue. “It took us about six weeks to find it,” Grossman said. “The only places it existed was in museums.” 

Finding the time to put the NFTs together has been a challenge. “It’s something I’m kind of wrestling with,” said Pine. “Obviously, my ‘day job’ is doing the cover of Time, which, as you can imagine, fills up most of my days. This is our moonlighting job in a way.” That moonlighting became much more complicated when Time decided to launch TIMEPieces, a series of NFT collections featuring the work of outside artists, the first of which was put up for sale on September 23 and included 4,676 NFTs. The team has expanded to involve as many as 16 people, though nobody at Time focuses on the NFT projects full time — yet. Grossman said he is currently hiring for TIMEPieces-specific roles.

They started work on TIMEPieces by reaching out to 20 artists. Some were pioneers of NFT art, and others were Time cover artists who’d hardly heard of the new technology, such as Tim O’Brien, who’s been illustrating Time covers since 1989. “I knew that there was no way he had thought about going into this space,” Pine said. “When I reached out to him, he basically just came back, and he goes, ‘Sure, this sounds great. I don’t know anything about it, but I trust Time.’ We held his hand through the process, and now I think he’s kind of in awe of it all.” Eventually, the 19 artists (one dropped out) were invited to propose another artist for the collection, bringing the total to 38. 

Julie Pacino, Al Pacino’s daughter and a filmmaker, had only started posting her photography on Instagram a couple of months earlier. So she was surprised when Houda Bakalli, one of Time’s original 20 artists, reached out about making an NFT out of one of her photographs. “At first, I just couldn’t believe it. I’m like, okay, there’s got to be some sort of catch. This doesn’t really make sense,” Pacino said. “Then when Keith Grossman called me, I’m just like, holy fucking shit, this is actually happening, wow.” She sees Time as having a legitimizing effect on the NFT market. “Having a powerhouse like Time that’s on board with it is just so exciting,” she said. “I’m so honored and humbled to be included with all of these other artists. It’s seriously changed my life.”

Each artist only submitted one work, and Time packaged them in all sorts of ways — some with a red border, others without; some by themselves, others paired with works from different artists — until they’d gone from 40 artworks to more than 4,000 NFTs. They’re splitting all primary and secondary sales revenues 50/50 with the artists, except for the one percent that’s being set aside to be donated to an as yet undecided charity. When they went up for sale, the TIMEPieces were listed at 0.1 ETH, currently worth about $400. “0.1 ETH made it the most accessible for consumers,” said Grossman. “I wanted the maximum number of people owning these. I want this to grow to be 40,000 different people owning TIMEPieces. I want this to be a new way in which consumers can engage with our brand. I don’t want this to be a small sort of endeavor.”

This is typical of the way Grossman talks about how he believes NFTs will change Time. TIMEPiece owners can already connect their crypto wallets with the Time website to get past the paywall, but Grossman said they’re considering a secondary paywall that would make some content only accessible to people who own TIMEPieces. And when other media companies jump into minting their own NFTs, as the Associated Press did last week, Grossman hopes they’ll license Time’s software. “Unlike a CMS, which requires people to pull something out and then replace it,” he says, “we could say, wait a minute, we have six months of learnings here on what it takes, and we literally could give you the blueprint plus the software in a box.”

Pine, who has been at Time since 1998, compared this moment to one of the last times the magazine jumped onto a new technology. “When the iPad was coming out, Steve Jobs actually came in,” he recalled. “We had a meeting with Steve and tried to concept what is the magazine going to look like on this newfangled device that they’ve created. And Time was the first brand that was out there with a fully interactive weekly magazine built specifically for the iPad. It was great for a few years.” Grossman also points to his involvement in the Wired tablet edition as a precursor to this moment, but the promises of technological optimists failed to deliver in that case. “The iPad was supposed to be the savior of the publishing industry, and that didn’t necessarily happen,” said Pine. “We have a lot of subscribers on the iPad, but that kind of remains steady, or should I say flat.”

Whether NFTs go the way of websites or magazine iPad editions, Time jumping on the trend can’t help but shape how people look at the magazine and how the magazine conceives of its audience. More than 3,000 TIMEPiece owners have connected their NFTs to the Time website to get past the paywall. That’s a pretty small number compared with the 2 million subscribers Time claims across all of its properties, but these new readers have the ear of the magazine’s top management in a way that the average reader does not. Like your most annoying friends, Time is now on Discord. They’re hosting weekly talks by the artists in the TIMEPieces collection for owners of the NFTs, while Grossman and other Time executives host Town Halls on the channel. “At Time, we certainly have a relationship with our audience,” Pine said, “but this seems even a little bit more intimate.”

Grossman was emphatic that he’s trying to update Time and that appealing to this new audience is a big part of that. When they moved into their new offices, he said he wanted “to make sure that people understood that we’re going to respect our past and we’re going to build on our past and we’re going to always honor our legacy. But our goal is: How does this brand stay around as an objective source of truth for the next 100 years?” Part of that survival strategy is attracting younger people into the Time fold. To that end, on October 21, Time named Nyla Hayes, age 12, as the TIMEPiece initiative’s first artist-in-residence. 

Time isn’t this stodgy old person, it’s got a personality, and it’s reinventing all the time,” Pine insisted. “We can be cool.”