Why Steve Jobs will not be Time Magazine’s Person of the Year

November 15, 2010, 11:34 AM UTC

Hint: It’s not because he hasn’t done enough to deserve it

Image: Time Inc.

Google’s Marissa Mayer thinks Steve Jobs should be Time‘s Person of the Year (see here). So, apparently, do the nearly 11,000 readers who, as of Monday morning, had voted for Apple’s (AAPL) CEO on Time‘s website.

But readers don’t choose the winner. If they did, Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be this year’s POY, and I can pretty much guarantee that’s not going to happen.

No, this is a decision made by Time‘s reporters, writers and editors in a series of meetings that get smaller and smaller until finally the managing editor and editor-in-chief sign off on it.

I don’t work for Time (Fortune‘s sister publication) anymore, and I have no inside knowledge about this year’s choice, but I’ve been in enough of those meetings and have worked on enough POY issues (see list below) to have a pretty good sense of how they go.

Steve Jobs may be on the list of candidates the editors are considering, and he may even end up on their “people who mattered” list, but he won’t be Time‘s Person of the Year.

It’s not because he hasn’t earned it.

The magazine’s official criterion is the person (or group or thing) that has done the most to change the news in the previous 12 months. The effect on the news could, in theory, be for good or evil (Hitler was the editors’ choice in 1938; Stalin was picked twice, in 1939 and 1942), but naming the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 created such a reader backlash that Time‘s editors ever since have shied away from the dark side. That’s why, for example, Osama bin Laden lost out in 2001 to Rudy Giuliani.

You can make a strong case, as Marissa Mayer did at a Time-sponsored panel last week, that Steve Jobs’ story is an amazing one, and that his company, his products, his stores, his design sense, his focus on the user experience etc. etc. drive more news stories year after year than any current business leader — certainly more than Intel’s Andy Grove (Time‘s 1997 pick).

“It’s an unbelievable story,” Mayer said last week. “I think it’s unbelievable that he hasn’t gotten it already.”

But as it gets closer to decision time in those meetings in the Time/Life building, and the editors have to choose among such names as Mark Zuckerberg, Lady Gaga, Jon Stewart, the Koch brothers, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, someone is going to say: “Yes, Steve Jobs deserves it. But why this year?”

Maybe Jobs should have been picked the year the Apple II took off. Or the year he introduced the Mac. Or the year he came back to Apple. Or the year he brought out the iPod. Or the iPhone.

But can someone make the case in those meetings that Jobs and his iPad did more to change the news in a Wikileaks, Facebook, Tea Party kind of year?

I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

To register your Person of the Year vote, click here.

For the record, the person, thing or machine of the year issues I had a hand in were:

  • 1982: The Computer (Machine of the Year)
  • 1988: Endangered Earth (Planet of the Year)
  • 1996: David Ho (AIDS researcher)
  • 1999: Albert Einstein (Person of the Century)
  • 2005: Bono, Bill Gates and Melinda Gates (The Good Samaritans)

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]