On Sunday, news broke that Marc Benioff, co-founder of Salesforce, and his wife Lynne will purchase Time magazine. Their $190 million acquisition comes less than one year after Time Inc. and its subsidiary publications were acquired by the Meredith Corporation.
Time’s Editor in Chief, Edward Felsenthal, helmed Meredith’s months-long search for a buyer. In a note to the magazine’s staff on Sunday, he wrote, “From the first moments we sat down with Marc and Lynne to discuss Time’s future, we knew that this was not just a meeting of the minds and business goals, it was a confluence of purpose.”
Felsenthal began at Time in 2013 as the magazine’s digital managing editor. He oversaw the weekly’s rapid expansion into the digital space and was named editor in chief in 2017. Felsenthal was previously a longtime editor at The Wall Street Journal and helped found The Daily Beast in 2008.
On Tuesday, CJR spoke briefly with Felsenthal about Time’s acquisition by the Benioffs and the sunny future of both its digital and print editions. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This deal came together quickly. What was your reaction when you first got wind the Benioffs were interested in buying?
We knew from the start—and Marc and Lynne said the same thing publicly—that this could be a really terrific fit. The Benioffs talk about what they call “family-impact investing.” They look for sound businesses that have a positive impact in the world.
At Time, we still have a great print business with more than 2 million paying subscribers. We’ve used that foundation to build fast-growing extensions of our brand, to supercharge our video operations, to grow live events, and to launch new franchises. This clearly resonated with the Benioffs. And we looked at them as people who stand for innovation and a great work culture. They spend a lot of time and resources focused on tackling many of the world’s complex problems, which is what we do at Time. So it just felt from the start like a great fit.
If this was a great fit, were there bad fits? What did your team seek to avoid as you looked for a buyer?
The great thing about this process was that Meredith, from the start, ruled out the worst-case scenarios. I give them a lot of credit for that. They worked with us with the purpose of finding a great home. And I think the other options, the other folks we talked to, also could have been good homes for us.
There was good cheer, laughter, and optimism. It’s all been very positive.
What specifically are the worst case scenarios Meredith ruled out?
I’m not going to speak to the worst options out there in the world. You know what they are, and I know what they are. This process took a little longer than we hoped, but that was, in part, because of a commitment from Meredith to make sure this came out well.
What feedback have you received internally?
It’s been great. I sent out a staff note on Sunday night, which is public, and the reaction not just from current Time employees but from the entire Time diaspora has been extremely enthusiastic. We had an all-hands meeting on Monday morning, and there was good cheer, laughter, and optimism. It’s all been very positive.
What does this purchase mean in the near-term for Time? Do you anticipate additional resources? The ability to hire new staff?
The nice thing about Time is that it’s strongly profitable. In a corporate environment [as in Meredith or Time, Inc.], we weren’t able to reinvest those profits. This was understandable, it’s just the reality of how public companies work that profits go towards paying dividends or paying off corporate debt. So our plan, which we presented to all of the bidders, is to reinvest profits in our key growth areas, including digital and video, including long-form video production.
We’ve also got a lot of hiring to do in the coming months, as Time becomes again a standalone company. Time will be, as it was in its beginning, an entrepreneurial stand-alone, owned by the Benioffs.
What parts of the company will be the focus for new hiring?
We’re pulling all of that together now. We’re going to be hiring for advertising, sales, digital operations, and marketing. As a stand-alone company, we will not be drawing on central services from a parent company. That’s our focus in the next 90 days.
You mentioned in your note to Time staff on the purchase that the Benioffs encouraged your team to think beyond a five-year strategy, to ask what Time might look like in 2040. What are your preliminary thoughts on this question?
We have a great magazine, and a lot of what we’re doing is building on the foundation. Our cover is phenomenal real-estate in journalism, and we’re building exciting new projects on that foundation.
For example, we have a phenomenally successful new franchise called “Firsts” that we launched last fall. [Editor’s note: “Firsts” is a Time special project highlighting, in the magazine’s words, “Women who are changing the world.” Covers and videos have been dedicated to dozens of women from around the globe, in diverse career fields.] We had great sponsorship opportunities and a great audience response to the print launch but also in multimedia.
Our A Year in Space documentary, which won an Emmy last fall, began with Scott Kelly on the cover of the magazine. That grew into an 11-part digital series on Time.com and two one-hour specials for PBS. We are not just a weekly magazine anymore, we are one of the biggest media platforms in our business. Creating premium, premier journalism. That’s what we’re going to be doing in 2040.
You’ve said the print magazine will remain the center of Time’s operations–
Center is probably the wrong word. I see it as the foundation of everything we’re doing. We’re still the biggest print publication in US news, in terms of our number of subscribers. Magazines used to focus on the largest audience possible, because the print news business was essentially advertising. Throughout the industry, we’ve come to focus more on consumer revenue. Advertising is still key to what we do, but our revenue now is driven by readers who love what we do. On top of that foundation, we’re building our digital, video, events, and new franchise operations. It all works together. And print is going to be part of what we do for a long time.
As much of the news landscape continues to move online, what opportunities do you perceive are still out there for the weekly print magazine? Is there new life that can be breathed into the format?
One of the many ways print still has impact is our cover. Our cover today is not just a print entity, it has a digital life. It ricochets all over the world and elevates what we’re doing. And digital opportunities grow out of print.
We did an entire print issue about drones, for example, on the way drones are changing war, the way people are fed, and farming… we had a story on the first person who life was saved by a drone. Our sales team sold that to Intel, which created our cover with a drone light show in the sky, including our red border. They formed our cover, including the red border. So it was a print issue. But it was also a video, and a digital package. We did augmented reality. That’s how print can play into how we’re growing and what we’re doing.
You said the Benioffs will provide guidance and mentorship as Time grows its brand. The Benioffs have also been clear that they don’t intend to involve themselves in Time’s day-to-day operations. How exactly do you envision their role with the magazine moving forward?
Well, they’re the owners, and obviously we’re going to be in close touch. We’re lucky to have people with such a commitment to public issues. But the team here, we’re going to continue to do what we did under Meredith and, before that, under Time Inc.
Marc Benioff has described himself and his wife as “stewards” of the magazine. What does good stewardship mean to you, and what do you make broadly of the trend of billionaire investors acquiring legacy publications? Is it a good thing for journalism?
I’m going to let other people speak to trends. Publications and media entities have always had owners. And there have always been issues to work through about ownership. One of the things that is so wonderful about the Benioffs is that they’ve made clear that they believe in high quality journalism. I think we’re well-positioned for the future because of that.
TOP IMAGE: Time EIC Edward Felsenthal. Courtesy photo.