And with that, Time Inc. is gone.
Once America’s great magazine company, the much-reduced publisher was bought by Iowa’s Meredith Corp. last year, with $650 million in equity from Koch Industries. This week its name was stripped from its headquarters in lower Manhattan, to which it moved in 2015 after abandoning the Mad Men-era Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center.
On Thursday, Time Inc.’s corporate website was redirecting traffic to Meredith. Former Editor in Chief John Huey tweeted: “R.I.P. Time Inc. The 95-year run is over.”
While the demise of Time Inc. has been coming for months, even years, its arrival nevertheless is a jarring moment for journalism. In part, that’s because some of the greatest names in magazines have graced its pages—film critic and writer James Agee; photographers Robert Capa, Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, and Henri Cartier-Bresson; sportswriters Rick Reilly and Frank Deford; business writer Carol Loomis, and former Time editor Walter Isaacson, who went on to write acclaimed biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square when World War II ended appeared in Life magazine, as did the first still photos from Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the Kennedy assassination.
The end of Time Inc. is also unsettling because the forces that doomed it seem stronger than ever. “We lived through a seismic change in the business of media, and what happened at Time to one degree or another has happened to every other journalistic enterprise both native and traditional,” says Josh Quittner, who was editor of Business 2.0, a “New Economy” magazine that Time Warner bought in 2001 and closed in 2007. “No one has figured it out because there’s nothing to figure out. It’s like the horse trying to figure out the automobile.”
But Time Inc. was especially vulnerable. It lived within a giant entertainment conglomerate, Time Warner, which always had other priorities. Its key decision makers, who had long track records of editorial achievement and business success, could not move beyond the old print paradigm. Its weeklies, bi-weeklies, and monthlies were ill-suited to the internet’s real-time, high-volume pace. Time Inc.’s fat operating profits made true innovation appear dangerous to hidebound managers who felt they had too much to lose. It never developed a coherent digital strategy.
No one has figured it out because there’s nothing to figure out. It’s like the horse trying to figure out the automobile.
Established companies, wrote Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, “find it very difficult to invest adequate resources in disruptive technologies—lower-margin opportunities that their customers don’t want—until their customers want them. And by then it is too late.”
“What are we going to do, cannibalize this incredible business for this uncertain thing? Are you going to cut your arm off so you can save the body later?” asks Craig Matters, whose 17-year career at Time Inc. included stints as editor of CNNMoney and managing editor of Money magazine. “We were just never willing to make those kinds of decisions.”
“Time Inc.,” says Matters, “is the innovator’s dilemma.” Or was.
TIME INC. STARTED LIFE AS A GREAT INNOVATOR. When Henry Luce and his Yale classmate Briton Hadden started publishing Time magazine in 1923 as a weekly news digest for busy businessmen, Luce called it “a crazy, half-romantic thing that has ruined thousands before us.” It was profitable within five years. Time’s first Man of the Year was aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1927.
After Hadden died, Time Inc. started Fortune in 1930; relaunched Life magazine in 1936; and rolled out Sports Illustrated in 1954. The company originated personal finance journalism with Money magazine in 1972 and celebrity journalism with People in 1974.
It was an early mover in the internet era, too. In October 1994, Time Inc. New Media, led by Isaacson, launched Web platform Pathfinder, essentially a landing page with links. Pathfinder was an “umbrella” for content from some 80 partners, including Time Inc. magazines, which did not develop their own sites. The original idea, Isaacson explained in an oral history project produced by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, was to charge for content from Pathfinder “just as you paid for any other service or magazine or subscription.”
But even back then, editors were dubious. “Time magazine was never in the ‘must have’ category; it was always in the ‘want to have’ category,” says Richard Stengel, who ran Time.com in 2000 and 2001 and went on to be managing editor of Time from 2006 to 2013. “So I thought the idea of charging for Time content just didn’t make sense.”
But then, a Time Inc. business manager named Bruce Judson came up with the idea of banner ads, and Pathfinder started running them at about the same time Wired started them on its website. “It really transformed everything,” Isaacson recalled for the Harvard project. “It was almost like you could look out of the Time Life Building to Madison Avenue and watch people walking with bags of money…to buy banner ads because they all wanted to be in on this thing.”
There was a downside, though: “It taught us we shouldn’t charge for content. We should just get as many eyeballs as possible,” said Isaacson, who didn’t respond to CJR’s requests for an interview through his publisher.
All that free stuff and those banner ads weren’t translating into profits for Time Inc.: Pathfinder was reportedly losing $15 million a year.
In 1995, not long after its launch, Don Logan, Time Inc.’s CEO, was asked how much money the company had spent on Pathfinder. “It’s given new meaning to me of the scientific term ‘black hole,’” he replied.
Logan later said he regretted that comment, but the damage had been done. His “black hole” remark became a metaphor for Time Inc.’s entire failed history of dealing with the Web. “They never got over seeing it as anything other than a black hole,” says Stengel. Time Inc. shut down Pathfinder in 1999.
It taught us we shouldn’t charge for content. We should just get as many eyeballs as possible.
Pathfinder’s demise showed how risk aversion permeated the company. “When we used to do plans for new businesses at Time Inc., we’d do exhaustive P&Ls and five-year projections, and take them right up the ladder and have them scrutinized by the financial and marketing guys,” recalls Bruce Hallett, former president of Time magazine and Sports Illustrated. “Everybody would think there were 1,000 reasons why it wasn’t going to work.”
Gerald Levin, who had run HBO during its heyday and helped engineer Time’s merger with Warner Communications, hated that inertia. He believed that “his inspired, visionary plans for Time Warner were being undermined by the dull people around him,” wrote Nina Munk in her book Fools Rush In. “Not one of Time Warner’s divisions had come up with a convincing internet initiative or strategy. What planet were they on? He wanted to grab his executives by their overpriced collars and scream: The Internet is here and it’s real and it’s passing us by! … If his divisions couldn’t get it together, he’d force the matter from headquarters.”
That top-down move turned out to be the “transformational” deal Levin had sought for years—the takeover of Time Inc. by America Online—and it may have sealed Time Inc.’s fate.
THE AOL-TIME WARNER DEAL is generally considered the worst merger ever. When Levin and AOL chairman Steve Case agreed to combine in early January 2000 (the deal closed in early 2001), the top of the internet bubble was only weeks away. AOL’s business would never recover.
The “synergies” between the two companies—the rationale for the whole deal—never panned out. Time Inc.’s content now had a new “pipeline” (through AOL’s network of 26 million subscribers), but the internet was starting to pass AOL by. AOL had simply become a much larger version of Pathfinder—and was perhaps even more damaging to Time Inc.’s brands.
Ann S. Moore, who had succeeded Logan as Time Inc.’s CEO in 2002 and retired in 2010, later said AOL killed a proposed launch of a website for women’s fashion magazine InStyle. Stengel recalled going down to AOL headquarters near Dulles Airport in Virginia to pitch the company on using stories from Time and other titles instead of AOL’s own news feed.
“I said, ‘Hey, dude, you guys bought us. Why do you have a newsroom of people who don’t understand news?’” Stengel remembers. “I never got anything close to a yes. The AOL people were so arrogant, and so full of themselves, they just couldn’t see that was a good idea. “
The only real success that came out of the merger was not from AOL itself but from the product of an earlier Time Warner acquisition, Turner Broadcasting.
“So, AOL buys Time Warner,” recalls Chris Peacock, former editor of Fortune.com and CNNMoney, whose entire 18-year career at Time Inc. was in new media. “They see Money.com, a highly reputable brand doing good work. It’s got its own stock quotes, its own portfolio.
“On the other side you have [financial news site] CNNfn.com. And as I understand it, the directive came from AOL saying these two brands will be put together.”
Several people told CJR that AOL’s CEO at the time, Bob Pittman, was the driving force behind a forced marriage that remained unhappy until Money.com went its separate way after the 2014 spin-off of Time Inc.
“CNN Money [was] born because Pittman wanted an announcement at the first earnings call” in 2001, says Matters, who was the site’s founding editor. “They wanted a ‘synergy’ announcement.”
CNNMoney became one of the most popular business and investing websites, just behind Yahoo Finance and MSN Money.
Although Money magazine provided its features to CNNMoney, whose editor reported to Time Inc., not CNN, the magazine had no control of its own online destiny. Even worse off was Fortune, which was relegated to a subsidiary position on CNNMoney and didn’t even have its name in the title, a source of great frustration at the magazine.
John Huey, former editor of Fortune who was then editorial director of Time Inc., oversaw CNNMoney. He says he doesn’t think separate sites, one for Money and one for Fortune, would have been a panacea.
“People at the brands, including me, were always trying to do whatever we could to get more presence online,” he says. But “nobody was going to invest in building a giant Money.com portal that could have competed with CBS MarketWatch.” (Disclosure: I’m a freelance columnist for MarketWatch, now owned by News Corp’s Dow Jones.)
“We blew up $100 billion, but we created a really good $40 million business” in CNN Money, says Matters. “Near as I can tell, CNN Money was the only thing that came out of that merger.”
Time Inc.’s other editors struggled to find a way forward after the dust cleared from the AOL disaster. Stengel says he boosted the online staff to 20 or 25 during his stint at Time.com, which was producing maybe 15 original stories a day, in addition to what was in the weekly magazine. It was a big increase but far from enough to make the site a major destination. Terry McDonell, who had wrested Sports Illustrated’s website from CNN’s clutches, got some of SI’s marquee writers to contribute online and launched a customized site called mySI.com. NFL maven Peter King’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” column reached millions online and drew lucrative digital sponsorships. (McDonell is on the board of CJR.)
People was Time Inc.’s biggest moneymaker, perhaps the most lucrative title in magazine history, and its foray into digital was more successful. In the mid-2000s, it brought in $1.3 billion in annual advertising and circulation revenue and contributed an astonishing $400 million to Time Warner’s bottom line, AdAge reported. People Editor Larry Hackett worked in tandem with People Group Editor Martha Nelson (later Time Inc.’s editor in chief) to build up the site.
“Without question, Martha brought more of a focus to the digital effort, whether it was bringing on people who had a different metabolism or re-training senior editors to think not just about the work on the magazine, but what’s going to go online,” Hackett says. By January 2011 People.com generated 1 billion page views a month.
But despite signs of digital hope, Pathfinder’s failure and the AOL fiasco had led to disillusionment and retrenchment. Levin was forced out in December 2001, Pittman left the following year, and Steve Case departed in 2003, when Time Warner dropped AOL from the company’s name. New CEO Richard Parsons calmed a traumatized company but offered few new initiatives.
Time Inc.’s management showed little leadership in those years. CEO Moore had launched successful magazines like Teen People, InStyle, and Real Simple, but several people tell CJR she was never comfortable in the digital world. Instead of formulating an internet strategy, she spearheaded several reorganizations (accompanied by rounds of layoffs), which were unveiled with much fanfare but had few results.
I said, ‘Hey, dude, you guys bought us. Why do you have a newsroom of people who don’t understand news?’
That didn’t matter at first, because the magazines were going great. In 2005, Time Inc. had its best year ever, posting revenues of $5.8 billion, while operating profits topped $1 billion for the first time. That took the urgency out of planning for the digital future.
“When you have magazines like People and InStyle that are still generating the cash that keeps the lights on, it takes an extraordinary amount of vision to juggle the digital imperative when you’re looking at numbers that are just not going to keep the lights on,” says Hackett.
But there was another, perhaps even bigger factor, Matters says. “Time Inc. was always about one thing, and that was making AIP—maxing out your annual incentive plan,” he says, describing the company’s bonus plan, in which executives could earn big checks for meeting targets. “Making investments in the future…if you were going to jeopardize your AIP, you didn’t do it.”
“There was a tremendous amount of, ‘Let’s not kill the golden goose, let’s just milk the cow as long as possible,’” says Stengel. “All the business-side guys were talking about their bonuses all the time. Journalists—it’s not like we’re against making money; we just don’t think about it 24/7.”
“I was never aware of any mindset that said, ‘Oh god, if we do that our bonus will be smaller,’” says Huey. “I was more aware of the fact that if we didn’t deliver the number that we were obligated to deliver to Time Warner, we wouldn’t be there.”
Whatever the reason, Time Inc.’s leaders never moved much beyond the scattered digital strategies being pursued by the different titles. And soon, 2005’s peak proved illusory.
The 2008 financial crisis was catastrophic. “Whole [advertising] categories disappeared—the IBMs and the Apples, and Toyota and GM,” says Huey.
Jobs were wiped out along with ad categories and profits. Layoffs had begun earlier (hundreds of jobs were eliminated from 2005 through 2007), but the cutbacks gathered steam as revenues and profits dwindled.
This wasn’t like the cyclical declines of the past. By 2010, Time Inc.’s operating income fell to $515 million, half of what it was five years earlier, on revenues of $3.7 billion, a $2.1 billion decline from its peak. “2008 is a disaster and now, oh my god, the internet has hit critical mass,” says Matters. “We were already behind the curve, and we were being disrupted.”
In more ways than one. In late 2005, corporate raider Carl Icahn bought $2 billion worth of Time Warner shares and demanded the company spin off some units and buy back stock. He was rebuffed, but a new shareholder-focused CEO, Jeff Bewkes, took over at Time Warner in 2008 and followed Icahn’s playbook by systematically dismantling the empire Levin and the late Steve Ross had built.
First to go was AOL, which Time Warner spun out in 2009. Time Warner Cable came next in 2012. Time Inc. now had a target on its back.
“Time Warner wasn’t very interested in Time Inc. in general or Time magazine in particular,” says Stengel. “I don’t think they gave a hoot what we did at all.”
McDonell believes dumping Time Inc. was Bewkes’s goal from early on. “Bewkes was already several moves ahead and deep in plans to spin off Time Inc. so he could focus on Turner, Warner Bros., HBO and cable. Where the real money was,” he wrote in his memoir, An Accidental Life.
“It was Jeff Bewkes and the senior management team who collectively pushed Time Inc. to aggressively pursue expansion into the digital realm,” a Time Warner spokesman tells CJR in an email. “Time Warner and the senior management team at Time innovated constantly, faster than its rivals, [but] the forces of the digital revolution overcame not just Time, but also its rivals.”
Time Inc.’s financial performance wasn’t helping. Revenues fell to $3.4 billion in 2012 and operating profits to $420 million. Despite layoffs that had become grimly routine, Time Inc.’s leadership seemed helpless to stop the bleeding.
When Ann Moore retired in 2010, Bewkes brought in Jack Griffin, a Meredith executive, as Time Inc.’s CEO. But he was gone in five months, his allegedly abrasive manner having ruffled too many feathers in Time’s comfortable nest. He was replaced by Laura Lang, who had made her name at digital ad agency Digitas. She lasted less than a year and a half, laid off 6 percent of Time Inc.’s workforce, and left after having earned $19 million, including $5.6 million in severance payments (which the newly spun-off Time Inc. later paid).
In early 2013 Meredith made its first run at Time Inc. It wanted to combine most of Time’s magazines with its own offerings, but The New York Times reported it did not want Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Money.
Rick Stengel remembers Bewkes discussing with him the idea that Time Warner would spin off most of Time Inc. and put those magazines in a fresh news division with CNN. “I really liked that idea,” says Stengel. So did several other people who spoke with CJR, who say it might have helped those titles solve their problems with video, scale, and even branding.
But the talks with Meredith collapsed, and by March, Time Warner had finally washed its hands of its problem child by spinning off the publishing company as a separate stock. There was, however, trouble in the details: The new public company, to be called Time Inc. again, would have $1.3 billion in net debt, most of it from “buying” UK magazine company IPC Media from Time Warner and paying a $600 million “special dividend” to Time Warner’s shareholders.
Time Warner and the senior management team at Time innovated constantly, faster than its rivals, [but] the forces of the digital revolution overcame not just Time, but also its rivals.
By contrast, when News Corp. split its publishing and entertainment businesses the same year, the publishing company, which kept the News Corp. name, got $2.6 billion in cash and carried no debt.
“Time Warner corporate knew that they just had to get rid of this thing,” says Josh Quittner, “and the smartest thing they could do—again from the filter of publicly held companies—was stick all the debt in the rowboat that was Time Inc. and float it out to sea.”
Several Time Inc. people tell CJR the debt was a huge issue. But neither Norman Pearlstine, who had been editor in chief for 10 years and returned to Time Inc. as chief content officer after the spin-off, nor Alan Murray, who succeeded him in 2016, believed it was a big deal. “We never had any problem paying the debt,” says Murray.
“I think the debt we were carrying on the books was manageable,” says Pearlstine. “I did not feel that we came out of the spin-off so saddled with debt that we were unable to do things.”
In 2013, Joe Ripp was named CEO of the new company. His background was in finance, having served as chief financial officer of both Time Inc. and its parent company. Ripp carried over some executives from the Time Warner regime.
But when he asked Martha Nelson to stay on in the renamed role of chief content officer, Time Inc.’s last editor in chief said no, because, she told The New York Times, she didn’t want editors to report to the business side. Nelson left Time Inc. with severance benefits of $4.4 million.
Instead, Ripp turned to Pearlstine, who had been Time Inc.’s editor in chief from 1995 to 2005 and had overseen content at Bloomberg for five years. Pearlstine’s statement in the release announcing his hiring—“I look forward to forging a new sense of partnership between the creative and business sides of Time Inc.”—raised eyebrows among former Time journalists who worried it would breach Time Inc.’s fabled separation of church and state, which already had frayed.
“I thought that speed of decision-making and collaboration was going to be critically important,” Pearlstine explains. “I thought for a public company that had just been spun off and that was really going to have a high-wire act, you needed to have a different kind of interaction between editors and their business colleagues.”
Several former Time Inc. employees tell CJR that during his tenure Pearlstine maintained the so-called Chinese wall, although it became more difficult as the financial challenges mounted.
In 2014, print circulation and ad revenues were falling by 3 percent a year; by 2016, that rate had increased to 9 percent. For the first nine months of 2017, print ad revenue plunged by 19 percent and circulation revenues by 13 percent over the same period the previous year.
By 2015, Time Inc.’s digital properties already attracted 100 million unique visitors a month in the US. Time Inc. was developing the scale it had long sought, but digital still comprised only 20 percent of revenues—it rose to a third of revenues last year—since digital ad rates were dropping and the emerging dominance of Google and Facebook (which accounted for 63 percent of US digital ad spending in 2017, according to eMarketer) was turning everyone else into also-rans.
Time Inc. scrambled for new revenue streams, expanding Fortune’s conference business and creating The Foundry, which it set up to produce native advertising in the trendy Industry City enclave in Brooklyn. It also made big strides in mobile and video, where it got a billion digital video views per month last year. It boasted loudly that it had finally cracked the top-10 of all digital properties in 2017, drawing 139 million unique visitors for all its content. It marked a notable change from a magazine culture that prized clever writing, fresh angles, and in-depth reporting.
But the downward spiral in print revenues caused Time Inc.’s stock price to drop, too, and prompted wave after wave of layoffs, depleting the ranks and gutting morale. Some veteran writers and editors left voluntarily. Fortune alone lost experienced, award-winning writers and editors like Allan Sloan, Dan Primack, Jennifer Reingold, Peter Elkind, and Nick Varchaver.
The result has been a shrinking of the kind of stories that once defined these brands. “When I go to Fortune magazine, the print version, I expect a really deeply reported, rich-in-anecdote story that engrosses me, but I don’t see that in most of what’s posted on Fortune.com,” says Chris Roush, a professor of business journalism at UNC Chapel Hill.
“Did we lose good people? Of course we lost good people,” explains Murray, who was Fortune’s editor until he took the top content job. He points out that top-notch writers remain, and that in the past couple of years Money and Fortune have won major business journalism awards. He also acknowledges that “magazines don’t have the budget to support staff to do the quantity of long form that we used to do.”
“I do think that the broad audience for those pieces is aging and declining,” adds Pearlstine. “Long-form print has an audience, but so does classical music.”
If Time Inc. had to sacrifice traditional journalistic quality for the speed and scale of mobile and video, it couldn’t overcome the brutal economics of advertising-supported publishing and Wall Street’s incessant demands on publicly traded companies.
Even privately held companies like Condé Nast have been bleeding red ink and laying off staffers. So have digital native sites like BuzzFeed and Mashable, which have been unable to break Google and Facebook’s stranglehold. After many years of struggling, the family-controlled New York Times Co. has seen its digital operations surge, but mostly from online subscriptions, which have skyrocketed under the Trump Administration.
In the end, Time Inc., whose internet strategy was erratic but finally focused on advertising, couldn’t survive as either a unit of Time Warner or as an independent company. The Meredith deal was its only exit strategy.
Was it inevitable? Quittner thinks so. “These magazines did phenomenally well from their print products,” he says. “The digital stuff wasn’t really anything that anyone ever could or ever has gotten a handle on. I don’t believe that any of these publications would have thrived on their own, because none of their competitors have.”
Daniel Okrent, who was editor of Life magazine and ran Time Inc. New Media during the Pathfinder days, is similarly fatalistic. “This was a huge, destructive tsunami,” he says. “And who can stop a tsunami?”
No one, but people do survive them. Of all the great names in publishing, Time Inc. was dealt a particularly bad hand. It was stuck in a public entertainment company whose strategic decisions often made things worse. It was led by successful magazine editors and publishers who were mostly the wrong people for the digital age. And it was a victim of its own prosperity, which fostered a culture that discouraged risk-taking and punished failure.
Absent these, Time Inc. still might have died. But at least it would have had a fighting chance.
At Time Inc., the gravy train kept running for executives
Forget all the doom-and-gloom talk that haunted Time Inc. since Time Warner first announced its spin-off in 2014. Even amid sharply declining print ad revenues and several rounds of layoffs, top executives continued to make big bucks—and in some cases, huge windfalls.
As the table below shows, Joseph A. Ripp, the company’s first chairman and chief executive officer, did best, with total compensation (salary, bonus, and equity awards) totaling nearly $28 million during his tenure, according to Equilar Inc., a board and executive data provider that used SEC proxy statements and other filings to calculate these figures for CJR.
Ripp also received at least one unusual perk. In 2015, Time Inc. reimbursed him more than $125,000 to cover the costs of a backup pilot when Ripp flew his private plane. Nearly half of that amount covered the costs of returning the empty plane on “deadhead” flights back to its airport, then flying back—empty again—to pick up Ripp.
In September 2016, Ripp was replaced by Richard L. Battista, who had joined the company the previous year after a career spent mostly in the entertainment business. He made $5.8 million in 2016, according to Equilar.
Battista will likely be the biggest winner to emerge from the Meredith deal. When it closes, he’ll bank $17.5 million altogether, according to Equilar. Other Time Inc. executives will earn $2.4 to $4.4 million from the deal, although some were in their jobs barely a year when the deal was announced.
Other highly compensated Time Inc. executives were former Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey J. Bairstow, who collected $12.8 million, and Executive Vice President Evelyn Webster, who made $10.4 million. Both were holdovers from Time Warner who left in 2016 in one of the company’s revolving series of reorganizations.
Is that a lot? “Purely based on overall figures, the Time executives came in at or below what we typically see for public company CEOs,” Dan Marcec, director of content at Equilar, says in an email. “However, given potentially poor performance—especially if performance has fared poorly in comparison to peer companies—concerns about compensation are not unfounded.”
Norman Pearlstine also was among the five most highly paid executives. From 2013 to 2015, he earned $6.4 million, including a $1.4 million signing bonus when he joined the new company. His compensation was not disclosed for 2016, though he was in his position for about half the year and earned $2.3 million in 2015.
Neither Time Inc. nor Meredith chose to comment for this story, but Pearlstine defends Time’s executive compensation. “Getting the spin-off done itself was a massive effort and where I think the team performed extremely well,” he says. “I just think there were a lot of things the management team did well that justified the compensation.”
Did he think his own pay was out of line?
“No, I don’t,” he says. “It was significantly less than when I was editor in chief” of the old Time Inc.
Editors Note: A previous version of this story misstated that Time Inc. moved to its headquarters in lower Manhattan in 2014. The move occurred in 2015. It has also been updated to clarify that Fortune’s conference business existed prior to 2015.