Not the Real Story: The NYTimes Oral History About the End of Time Inc.

Sunday’s New York Times story, “Time Inc.: The End of a Media Dynasty,” is entertaining but the story’s deck, “An oral history of how the once-dominant Time Inc. ended up on the scrap heap” doesn’t deliver.

The Times story has a lot of food and drink tales and plenty on men behaving badly but it  glosses over Time Warner’s disastrous 2000 merger with AOL and what really sunk Time Inc. The AOL deal reflected how dumb Time Inc.’s bureaucracy had become, mortgaging its future to merge with AOL’s dial up Internet service just as it was about to be replaced by broadband. See this good 2010 Times story, “How the AOL-Time Werner Merger Went So Wrong”:

When the deal was announced on Jan. 10, 2000, Stephen M. Case, a co-founder of AOL, said, “This is a historic moment in which new media has truly come of age.” His counterpart at Time Warner, the philosopher chief executive Gerald M. Levin, who was fond of quoting the Bible and Camus, said the Internet had begun to “create unprecedented and instantaneous access to every form of media and to unleash immense possibilities for economic growth, human understanding and creative expression.”

The trail of despair in subsequent years included countless job losses, the decimation of retirement accounts, investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department, and countless executive upheavals. Today, the combined values of the companies, which have been separated, is about one-seventh of their worth on the day of the merger.

To call the transaction the worst in history, as it is now taught in business schools, does not begin to tell the story of how some of the brightest minds in technology and media collaborated to produce a deal now regarded by many as a colossal mistake.

In the 1980s and ’90s I got to know some of the Time Inc. editors while judging the National Magazine Awards and being on the executive committee of the American Society of Magazine Editors. They were an interesting mix—all smart and tough. Dick Stolley, the founding editor of People, for many years Time Inc.’s cash cow, typified the company’s ability to do both good and popular journalism. Then there was a sense in the late 1980s that the company was going bureaucratic, preferring editors like Jason McManus (described as “being good with people”) over tough editors like Ray Cave.

For an entertaining look at Time Inc.’s culture, and what went wrong, also see this post:

STARTING A MAGAZINE: AN OFTEN

FUNNY LOOK AT HOW NOT TO DO IT

October 2012

By Jack Limpert

One of the most entertaining books about journalism, and maybe the best book about starting a magazine, is The Fanciest Dive by Christopher Byron. It’s the story of an attempt in the 1980s by Time Inc., then riding high as the publisher of Time, People, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, to start a magazine called TV-Cable Week. Byron, a writer and editor at Time magazine, was part of the team picked to start the magazine.

The book has wonderful insights into how dumb big media companies can be, although those of us in Washington already had seen an example of Time Inc.’s business savvy in 1978 when it bought the Washington Star. At the time, the Star was owned by Joe Allbritton, a Texan who had made millions in S&L’s and funeral homes; in 1975 he had paid $28 million for the Star and its three television stations. Three years later he sold the Star to Time Inc. for $20 million, keeping the very profitable TV stations. Three years after that, in 1981, Time Inc. folded the Star,admitting that it was losing $20 million a year trying to compete with the Washington Post.Those thrown out of work when Time Inc. folded the Star included Maureen Dowd and lots of other very good journalists. (When the Star went under, Maureen came into The Washingtonianlooking for a job. I offered her $25,000 a year, assuring her that she’d never get more than that elsewhere. She did get more that that—at Time magazine, of all places—and then in 1983 she went to the New York Times.)

Some of the most entertaining parts of The Fanciest Dive involve Henry Grunwald, who had been the top editor of Time magazine in the 1970s and then was editor in chief of Time Inc. in the 1980s. As plans for TV-Cable Week got started, the first strange decision made by Kelso Sutton, VP in charge of the business side of the Time Inc. magazines, was to set up the new magazine not in Manhattan, where all the other Time Inc. magazines were, but across from a shopping mall in White Plains. The Sutton decision was explained this way: “He says we can get secretaries out in the suburbs for twelve thousand a year; we’ll save a lot of money.”

It was the White Plains move that gave Byron lots of chances to make fun of Time Inc., such as this: “Here was Henry Anatole Grunwald, the perfect embodiment of intellectual self-possession; whose own father had written the lyrics for the operettas of Franz Lehar; a man who had never learned to drive a car, since he was accustomed to taking corporate limousines everywhere; who numbered among his ‘friends’ the head of government of half of Europe. Here was Grunwald wandering around the inside of the Galleria shopping mall, past Quick Snax and Salad Scene, past The Magic Pan and Pastrami Delights, even as pubescent teenagers swarmed about him clutching posters of Michael Jackson and licking triple scoop ice cream cones from Slurps. As the tour continued, Zucchi snuck a sideways glance at the look of bewilderment and confusion that had cemented itself to Grunwald’s face, and he thought, Christ, I don’t think the guy’s even been in a mall before.”

Byron describes in often comic detail the many mistakes made by the Time Inc. executives—lots of Harvard men and MBAs included—and near the end of the book Grunwald again is out in White Plains. Here’s Byron at his best:

“In keeping with the no-time-to-waste spirit of the proceedings, someone proposed that instead of adjourning for luncheon, the assembled executives ‘order in.’ A secretary appeared to take orders, and about twenty minutes later a box arrived from one of the fast-food shops in the Galleria. There was the usual: pastrami on rye, chicken salad on whole wheat, cartons of chocolate milk, cans of Pepsi Light, plastic containers of cole slaw.

“Yet no sooner did people start reaching into the box and passing around its contents than something unexpected happened: Editor in Chief Grunwald rose from his chair, stared briefly into the middle distance, and went quickly out of the room. Though several at the table exchanged glances, no one said anything; and when Grunwald returned moments later, the luncheon proceeded as if nothing had happened.

“But something had happened, and although no one in the room but Grunwald knew what it was, there was one TV-Cable Week employee destined to remember the event forever after.

“That person was an attractive young secretary named Katherine Speer, whose desk was in the hallway outside the audio-visual screening room. With her colleagues now departed for the noon hour, and the officials from New York apparently settling in for their working luncheon, Speer was preparing to leave when she looked up to find staring down at her the bushy-browed visage of Grunwald. Said he to the startled secretary: ‘It’s getting late! Please order me a helicopter!’ Then Time Inc.’s editor in chief turned and headed back into the conference room.

“Speer was speechless. Order me a helicopter! Was he talking about some new Galleria delicacy, some triple scoop with a propeller in it? For several moments she sat motionless before the message sank in: the man was apparently serious—he wanted her to order him an actual helicopter!

“Speer opened the Yellow Pages and started looking for Helicopters, then gave up and called the editor in chief’s secretary in New York. ‘He wants a helicopter?’ exclaimed the woman. ‘In this weather? We’re going to have thunderstorms any minute down here! Order him a limousine!”

Toward the end of the book it’s not as funny when Grunwald and other Time Inc. executives return to White Plains to announce that TV-Cable Week magazine was finished and its 251 employees no longer had jobs. But by then the reader has learned a lot about how hard it can be to start a magazine and what it’s like for editors and writers to be at the mercy of MBAs. Byron suggests that any time a journalist hears phrases like “strategic plans” and “decision trees,” it’s probably trouble. And he concludes that “the best ideas will continue to come from where they always have come—single, visionary individuals acting alone—and not from corporate committees. The story of TV-Cable Week shows why.”

Postscript: Did Time Inc. get smarter after the 1980s TV-Cable Week debacle? In 1990 it bought Warner Communications and by 2000 Time Warner was worth $164 billion. But then in 2000 Time Warner, led by many of the people Byron wrote about in The Fanciest Dive, acquired AOL, then valued at $147 billion. AOL is now worth $3 billion.

Comments

  1. Those anecdotes are such delightful reading. I’m working on a piece on my Mad-Man years at Time Life and the stories are pure catnip. I’m going straight from here to Amazon to order Byyon’s book–even though it post-dates my Time tenure. Who cares. You can’t get enough helicopter rides.

  2. BARNARD COLLIER says:

    Dear Jack,

    There is some soul searching going on about that story among Times folk and the question: “Why do such stories almost invariably deal with the memories and pains of the editorial side, and do almost nothing to delve into the enormously lousy business decisions, plus greed and laziness, plus general stupidity and knuckle-headedness of the ‘corporate’ execs who made most of the awful decisions that killed the golden geese?”

    Gannett is now headed in the direction of Time Magazine and the rest of that stable.

    My father used to tell the story of the guy who had a horse that pulled his milk wagon, and when things got tough, he decided to save money by each day feeding the horse half the amount of oats the horse was getting fed the day before.

    “I was saving a lot of money!” the milkman boasted, “But then the damned horse up and died on me.”

    Gannett, among other publishers is doing or has done the same. “Corporate” cuts staff, cuts funds, demands more “eyeballs” on shorter, less well researched and often disgracefully shallow stories, and then the damned horse ups and dies on them, but “corporate” almost never is pinned with the blame.

    When USA Today print media is sold to some right-wing company with no interest in anything about content except that it fraudulently attracts eyeballs, the avarice and utter stupidity of the high paid executives will go all but unrecognized while tears are shed for the good editors and reporters who once made reading the papers worthwhile.

    After a while deliberate lies purposefully disseminated by a fascist regime will become daily fodder for the TV and social media owners and when a deeper look at criminality is occasionally reported, it will be derided as “fake.”

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