Earlier this year, Time Warner revealed a plan to spin off its magazine unit. At the time, the announcement prompted me to offer "six ideas to save Time Inc.":
- Lose the Vatican (the office of the editor in chief)
- Stop grouping magazines
- Scale back corporate
- Write off legacy systems
- Raise consumer prices
- Stop using the b-word (brand)
Since I wrote that post, Time Inc. hired a new CEO (Joe Ripp). As one of his first moves, he decided to "lose the Vatican", dismissing editor-in-chief Martha Nelson and shifting reporting lines from her office to the publishers of the company's magazines.
The decision generated a good deal of commentary. At MediaPost, Bob Garfield wrote "An open letter to Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp" that suggested the company is trading editorial prestige, trust and good names for "quick cash":
A Time Inc. spokesperson tried to persuade Ad Age that the company’s vaunted editorial independence is not in jeopardy: "Our editors will have full responsibility for their own content. Nothing there changes." Translation: everything changes. Editors, by virtue of their new bosses, will be obliged to show new revenue, which is a path to perdition.
Writing about "The fall of the wall?" for the New York Times, Joe Nocera was a bit less dire, but still concluded that "[t]he more likely outcome, though, is that the much-vaunted Church-State divide at Time Inc. is dead." All hail the glorious dead, right?
Well, not exactly. At Ad Age, Michael Sebastian describes how editorial oversight has a bit of a grubby past:
Martha Nelson, who is leaving her post as Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief as part of the restructuring, previously oversaw the editorial functions of the company's 21 magazines. That could mean rewriting an article or even ripping up a cover at the last minute, a former Time Inc. editor said. That's not something Mr. Pearlstine will do.
Sebastian could also have invoked the magazines that were not overseen by past editors-in-chief: titles acquired in the U.K., for example, have long operated under separate rules. Time Inc. manages something close to 160 titles; fewer than two dozen reported to the editor-in-chief.
Michael Wolff, acerbic to a fault, cares less about church and state and more about failed business models. Writing for The Guardian, Wolff offers a clear and discouraging view of the company:
Now, to further refine the problem, it is not just that the editorial side is reporting to business, but that the business side largely consists of failed salesman. Certainly, if you are a salesman who is still selling magazine pages (however you have tried to rebrand yourself as a cross platform man), you've lost your career way.
While Wolff's tone is not one I would emulate, he puts his finger on an untested assumption about the future of Time Inc. All of these changes presume that the company needs to become more ad-driven. I'd argue that the opposite is true.
My fifth idea, "raise consumer prices", provides a clearer path for Time Inc. to survive and grow:
The cheapest offers for many Time Inc. titles are way too low. I can buy a year’s subscription to Time for $20. Short of a return to the golden age of advertising, there’s no way the print version of the magazine survives at $20. Just ask Newsweek. Yes, you’ll lose subscribers as you raise prices, and yes, it will have an impact on advertising revenues. Make the change now, while it is still under your control, before advertising is gone completely.
Time Inc. separated church and state to protect the interests of the reader. Then and now, that was the most important thing to do. Unfortunately, editors at a lot of its magazines may have come to see "independence" as separate and apart from "serving the reader".
Editors whose publications aren't profitable based on circulation alone should be horrified, but not because it leaves them vulnerable to advertising pressures. They should recognize that the people who are supposed to benefit from all of that reporting and writing and editing don't value it enough to cover marginal costs.
That's the problem to work on. Speaking just for me, I wouldn't mind having a boss who was concerned about that, too.