Bureaucracies—Such as Time Inc.—Do the Strangest and Funniest Things

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 10.29.37 AMBack in the pre-digital age, before broadband and Google and BuzzFeed, the Time Inc. magazines were flying high: Time dominated the newsweeklies, Sports Illustrated was a big success, People was a huge success. The company had lots of money and some smart editors—Dick Stolley, Ray Cave, and Jim Seymore among them—but it also was a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies can do some really dumb things.

In 1978 Time Inc. bought the Washington Star from Joe Allbritton for $20 million plus some debt. The afternoon Star competed with the morning Washington Post, which also owned Newsweek. Maybe the Time Inc. executives thought they could show Newsweek’s owners that they also could beat them at the Washington newspaper game.

Allbritton, who had come to DC from Houston, had bought the Star and its radio and television stations in 1974 for $35 million. By unloading the money-losing afternoon paper on Time Inc., Allbritton was able to keep the radio and television stations at a cost of almost nothing.

Last year the television stations were sold by Robert Allbritton, Joe’s son, for $985 million, with that money now available to support the growth of Politico. As for the Star, Time Inc. folded it in 1981, suggesting that its executives were clueless in knowing how to run a big-city newspaper.

Then in the dumbest media decision in history, Time Warner in 2000 merged with AOL just as broadband was about to destroy AOL’s dial-up access to the Internet. That decision probably cost Time Warner stockholders about $100 billion and it made many AOL stockholders, including Steve Case, Ted Leonsis, and some journalists, very rich.

Reading Stet, a memoir by British book editor Diane Athill, I came across another window into the Time Inc. bureaucracy. Stet was published in 2000 and it’s a candid and witty account of Athill’s 50 years at Andre Deutsch, Ltd., a London publisher. Athill worked with Norman Mailer, John Updike, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac, V.S. Naipaul, and many other top writers.

Athill’s account of what happened when Time Inc. took over the Andre Deutsch Ltd. publishing house is a wonderful window into how bureaucracies can do a lot of planning and produce a lot of reports but encouraging and publishing good work, at least in this case, was not something Time Inc. knew how to do.

Athill begins her account by saying, “In the nineteen-seventies we went through an odd, and eventually comic, experience: to the outward eye we were taken over by Time/Life.” She then goes on to describe what happened.
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Oh well, we all thought, perhaps we will get some big books through them, and they don’t seem to intend any harm – and the truth was, they did not….They made no attempt to intervene in any of our publishing plans. And they drove Andre mad. This they did by writing to him from time to time, asking him for a detailed forecast of our publishing plans for the next five years. The first time they did this he sent a civil reply explaining that our kind of publishing didn’t work like that, but gradually he became more and more enraged. I remember being taken aside at a New York party by the man who functioned as our link with Time-Life, and asked to calm Andre and explain to him that all he need do to keep the accounts people happy was send a few figures. He didn’t say in so many words ‘It doesn’t matter if they make sense or not’, but he very clearly implied as much, and that was the message I carried home . . . which made Andre even madder. It was their silliness that was getting to him, not their asking for information. Our accountant Philip Tammer (who, by the way, was the dearest, kindest, most long-suffering, most upright and most loyal accountant anyone ever had) once wrote to their accountants: ‘What we will be publishing in five years’ time depends on what’s going on in the head of some unknown person probably sitting in a garret, and we don’t know the address of that garret.’ Andre was feeling about Time/Life very much what I felt about Andre when he nagged the editorial department about lack of method.

The other cause of indignation was the Annual Meeting of the Associates (there were ten or so other companies linked to Time/Life, like us). Sales conferences in exotic venues were much indulged in during the seventies – perhaps they still are? They were justified on the grounds that giving the reps a treat would improve their morale. This was not a belief subscribed to by anyone in our firm. On one occasion we ventured as far as a pub outside Richmond, but usually at the end of the conference we all sloped off to dinner at an inexpensive restaurant, the meal (if Andre had managed to get his oar in) ordered in advance so that no one could start getting silly with the smoked salmon (and they were fun, those evenings). So the idea of traipsing off to Mexico for what amounted to a glorified sales conference, as he had to do in the first year of this alliance, seemed to Andre an outrage. For the second year they announced that the venue would be Morocco, and he struck. He wrote to them severely, pointing out that all the Associates would be going, like him, to the Frankfurt Book Fair, so the obvious time and place for their meeting would be the weekend before the Fair, somewhere in Germany within easy reach of Frankfurt. I distinctly heard the sound of gritted teeth behind the fulsome letter received in return, which assured him that ‘this is exactly the kind of input we were hoping to gain from our Associates’.

Before each meeting all the Associates were asked to think up ten Publishing Projects (which meant books), and to send their outlines to New York, where they would be pooled, printed, and bound in rich leather, one copy each for every delegate with his name impressed on it in gold, to await him on the conference table. ‘Thinking up’ books on demand is one of the idlest occupations in all of publishing. If an interesting book has its origins in a head other than its author’s, then it either comes in a flash as a result of compelling circumstances, or it is the result of someone’s obsession which he has nursed until just the right author has turned up. Books worth reading don’t come from people saying to each other ‘What a good idea’. They come from someone knowing a great deal about something and having strong feelings about it. Which does not mean that a capable hack can’t turn out a passable book-like object to a publisher’s order; only that when he does so it ends on the remainder shelves in double-quick time.

So we asked each other ‘Do you think that all the other Associates are feeling just like us?’ – and what we were feeling was a blend of despair and ribaldry. We had a special file labelled ‘Stinkers’, kept in a bottom drawer of Andre’s desk, which contained a collection of all the most appalling ideas that had been submitted to us over the years, and I dug this out . . . . But finally sobriety prevailed and we settled for two or three notions so drab that I have forgotten them. No one else, Andre reported, did any better, so they had all been feeling like us.

Two years were as many as Andre could stand of Time/Life—and probably as much as they could stand of him. He never divulged which side it was who first said ‘Let’s call it a day’, nor how much money was lost on the deal when he bought the shares back, but his delight at being free of them was manifest. I thought of pressing  him for details, and so, l think, did Piers, but it would have been too unkind. The silliness had not all been on the other side.
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For another publishing disaster story, this one with a lot of laughs, see this earlier post about the time that Time Inc. decided to start a new magazine about television.

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