Business | Analysis

Fall of Time Inc is more about bad leadership than a dying industry

Demise of a jewel in journalism’s crown warrants special shame and humiliation

  • Michael Wolff, Guardian News Service
  • Published: 21:49 February 21, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Dana A Shams/©Gulf News

I remember when the 34th floor of the Time Life building was the most vaunted real estate in journalism. Man, those were offices — as large as any I’ve seen in any business, Wall Street and Hollywood included. Ante-rooms leading into sitting rooms that flowed into inner sanctums. For editors.

Then the tell-tale signs: the paint was left to peel, the chips on the picture frames around the famous Life photographs were no longer coloured in, and the desk tops stayed sticky from yesterday’s Diet Coke spills. The issue was not if, but when, a sale would happen, despite Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes saying, never, no, not a chance he’d sell the magazines.

And yet, even though the end has been clear for some time, we should not let the all-but-done defenestration of the greatest magazine company in the history of the form go lightly. There’s lots of blame to cast about and quite some cause and effect links to the epochal downfall of print to consider.

Even in the context of the general decline of the magazine business, Time Inc warrants special shame and humiliation. Not long ago, it was America against the Italy and France of its two closest rivals, Conde Nast and Hearst. But then Time Inc became the Soviet Union. Now it is likely to be taken over by Meredith. Meredith. From Des Moines. Which is, well, Iowa.

There are many points of entry into this story, each contributing to the company’s descent. In 1989, Time Inc, Ivy League publishers with lots of cash in the bank, got spooked by Wall Street takeover marauders and so merged with Warner Communications, an unsavoury entertainment company. The Ivy League guys had some romantic fantasy about being protected by the tough guys. But then Warner’s CEO, Steve Ross, formerly in funeral homes and parking lots, did a quick jujitsu and forced the Ivy Leaguers out, fundamentally shifting the balance in the company (and, arguably, in the media business) from publishing to celebrity.

In 1994, Time Inc became the first major company to embrace the internet. Actually, it was, however briefly, the most important company in the internet space, loftily rejecting entreaties to make investments with upstart companies including AOL, Netscape, Yahoo, and, later, Google. It did, though, make two paramount contributions to the digital future which would haunt it, and the rest of print media: it created the first content website, Pathfinder, and offered this content for free; and, violating what were then strict internet customs, it started to sell advertising.

Let it be recorded before the company enters oblivion: Time Inc launched the web as a publishing and advertising platform, wholly failing to appreciate what it had done, and what it should do next.

After Ross’ death, and another tussle for control, Gerard Levin emerged as the Time Warner CEO, one of the most important executives in America. Time Warner, with its powerful magazines, its dominance in the growing cable business, its acquisition of CNN and Turner in the mid-1990s, and its preeminence in Hollywood and the music industry, was as central to liberal-establishment America as News Corp and Fox came to be to conservative America. It was a hubris moment.

Levin was an expansionist, or, in many critiques, paranoid, motivated to buy what he thought others might be about to buy. On this basis, the modern jumble of assets was assembled and the long knives culture of warring fiefdoms, borderline personalities and dysfunctional management became its modus operandi. They cut you up there at Time Warner.

At Time Inc, expansion included hundreds of new magazine titles, from Southern Living to Golf Magazine to many magazines the company still probably does not know it owns in the UK (where it acquired IPC), which seemed to create a publishing juggernaut, but which had the effect of turning the most prestigious magazine publisher into, largely, a schlock house.

Then, in 2000, Levin engineered a deal, possibly the most infamous ever engineered in corporate America, in which AOL bought Time Warner, destroying billions of dollars in value, breaking the spirits of tens of thousands of employees and ending the growth as well as the dominance of the company.

Time Warner (briefly AOL Time Warner) froze. Its vast public humiliation, the exhaustion of the internecine wars that followed the combination (with Levin being ignominiously expelled), the low ambitions of its caretaker CEO, the politically adept banker, Dick Parsons, and the company’s incomprehension about how to bet on the future (having made the worst of all possible bets), meant that for half a decade, as the media business transformed, it did essentially nothing, except, arguably, produce The Sopranos. (On that basis, Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of HBO, would become the Time Warner CEO in 2008.) Certainly, Time Inc was a lost ship. Its CEO, Anne Moore, widely mocked and derided throughout the company and, as well, the publishing industry, nevertheless held the job for eight years.

It was only after Carl Icahn’s run at the company in 2006, that Time Warner began the grim remaking of its business. Icahn forced an almost official acknowledgement that the world’s largest media company, and the emblematic company of media savvy New York, was a dead idea. In slow motion, Bewkes, taking the reigns from the disengaged Parsons, dispatched Warner Music, Time Warner Cable and AOL, each of these entities former crown jewels, and refocused the company on its cable channels.

The long interregnum between Icahn and the emergence of the new streamlined company meant the magazines were largely unsupervised. Or they were supervised by the ineffectual and imperious Moore. While vast resources and considerable brain power in the company were devoted to digital adaptation, the result was to do as little as possible while building as large a bureaucratic foundation as possible. I’m not sure there is any company that has spent so much time talking about its digital future to such little effect. This was farce on quite an amazing scale.

Cuts became the constant norm. Quality disintegrated. Influence dissipated. The end of the company was all but certain. Bewkes’ denial of this might not have been so much a lie as a gift. Because the company was named Time, and because Bewkes’ father had worked there, this may have been a sentimental window he was leaving open. But nobody took advantage of it. The raging hostilities within the enterprise made redemption or progress or a new idea or even good will impossible.

John Huey, the ever-talkative Time Inc editor-in-chief during these final years, only ever seemed to express hopelessness and frustration, if not disgust, about the company. In 2010, Jack Griffin, from the Meredith Company, was brought in to replace Moore as the new CEO. The distance between Time and Meredith (in effect, an efficiently run direct marketing house), and the ultimate irony of the combination, is measured by how quickly the Time Inc barons ejected Griffin from the top job (five months).

Over a year later, he was finally replaced by Laura Lang, a minor advertising executive without publishing experience or interest. Bewkes, from Yale, much closer to the classic Time Inc Ivy Leaguers, seemed to regard the whole company as having become just a catch-all of mediocrities, all trying desperately, and viciously, to protect their jobs.

Curiously, it appears the faded jewels, so faded Meredith is said not to want them, will be left behind: Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune. These are the greatest names in the magazine business and, rid of the dross surrounding them, and with a thorough house cleaning, a fine opportunity.

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