On Monday, the New York Times profiled “a new crop of chiefs” leading the magazine groups at Hearst (David Carey), Meredith (Tom Harty), Time Inc. (Jack Griffin) and Conde Nast (Robert Sauerberg).
Although the Times characterized the changes as a generational shift, a bit of “out with the old, in with the new” to help publishers better manage in a digital era, I’m not convinced.
First, these guys – all middle-aged white men – reflect experience in the old order, not necessarily an embrace of a new one. They aren’t part of a “born-digital” generation; they are on the other side of that divide.
As well, they are part of a very small club. Harty came from Golf Digest (a Conde Nast title) and worked for Griffin at Meredith. Sauerberg worked under David Carey, who moved to Meredith from Conde Nast. And while Cathy Black is stepping aside, the other reporting relationships are still in place at Time Inc. (Ann Moore is chairman), Conde Nast (Chuck Townsend remains, and the Newhouse family retains control) and Meredith.
The new bosses talk in ways that refine the old model but don’t change it. Griffin, widely praised for making over Meredith as a “marketing services” company, now sees a “laser focus” on the consumer as critical to Time Inc.’s success. A laser focus on the consumer is a good thing, but it’s not necessarily a magazine thing or a device thing.
Griffin’s ultimate boss, Jeff Bewkes, reveals a lot when he defends windowing video content in an interview with David Carr. Bewkes’ “focus on the consumer” starts with a business model (or in the case of TimeWarner, the lack of one).
This seems like the right point to fully disclose that I’ve consulted for Meredith. I worked directly with Griffin and Harty when I did so. I’ve also consulted for Conde Nast (ages ago), reporting to Chuck Townsend on the assignment. And I started my publishing career at Time Inc.
The people I’ve worked with are smart, motivated publishing professionals. The problem is, they work for companies whose ‘business model’ involves putting content in containers.
When a magazine publisher talks about focusing on the consumer, it almost immediately translates into “finding more customers who will buy more content that we can put into a variety of (publisher-controlled) containers”. I know I repeat myself, but that market is getting smaller.
And that’s the challenge we face. There’s no shortage of smart, motivated people Google or at Facebook, either. But these firms, and many others, aren’t tied to business models that calcified long before the web era dawned.