Over at New York Magazine, Gabriel Sherman has a big feature on Time Magazine’s plans to save a media empire that’s been ravaged by shrinking revenues and three changes in leadership in just the past four years.
The prognosis? Things are bad, they’re getting worse, and the current leadership is as confused as anybody in the legacy news business.
The attitude at the top of Time Inc. could most charitably described as “schizophrenic.” CEO Joe Ripp talks of entering arenas like e-commerce and mentions buying LinkedIn – never mind that the latter is worth 10X the former. Another executive, absurdly, told the Guardian that Time needs to build “the next Gilt, the next Facebook.” But then Ripp goes on to explain about why, with millions spent each year on debt servicing, it’s impossible for Time to function like a tech company.
“Amazon can invest in helicopters that can deliver your packages and not have to earn a nickel,” he tells Sherman. “I do.”
That said, it hasn’t stopped Time from at least talking like a startup. The company’s CTO Colin Bodell, a former Amazon executive, sounds almost like a parody of a fail-fast entrepreneur, spouting off Silicon Valley koans to Sherman like, “I don’t care if it’s the janitor who comes up with the next big idea,” and “We know we have to iterate very, very fast.”
But while it’s still early in the company’s latest regime, Time hasn’t really explained how it plans to create a next generation media company (creating “the next Facebook” is not a business strategy) beyond the same stuff every other big brand’s been doing for years, like video, apps, and sponsored content.
Speaking of sponsored content, Time seems as confused on the editorial side of the company as it is on the business side. Ripp tells Sherman he brought in Pearlstine, a longtime staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, because he understands the magazine’s “traditions.” And yet Ripp supports both native advertising (hell, who doesn’t these days) and, perhaps more troublingly, Forbes’ contributor model, which basically lets any hack publish under a Forbes byline no matter how compromised by special interests the writer is. (And we know how that experiment turned out).
Then there’s Pearlstine’s reaction to a leaked internal spreadsheet ranking authors by how “beneficial to advertiser relationships” their content is. First, Pearlstine tells Sherman, “Had it gone past me, I would have said, ‘What the fuck is this?’” But then he calls the criticism “bullshit.”
“In a dot-com world, if you’re judging people on audience traffic, one of the qualities of those things is ‘Are you creating traffic for advertisers that you can monetize?’ That’s a legitimate question.”
The descent of Time leadership’s into nonsense hits its nadir, however, when Ripp compares his company to the new breed of media startups. “You know the BuzzFeeds and Voxes are valued on the number of buzzes they get. Who gives a damn what that is?”
I’m fairly sure the investors of Vox and Buzzfeed aren’t sitting around counting “buzzes” all day, but I’m not a media exec with decades of experience so what do I know?
Time is talking the entrepreneurial talk, but not walking the walk. It says it wants to create the “next Facebook,” but is merely following the failed playbook of so many other old media stalwarts who waited too long to innovate or, like Forbes, innovated in a way that completely destroyed its integrity (which, let’s be honest, is one of the only things the old media guard still has).
Talk is cheap. Time can talk all it wants about acting like a startup and even throw a “Hack Day” if it pleases. But Time Inc. is structured and financed differently than Vox Media, Buzzfeed, or other new media outlets that are making these more innovative business models it work. The bottom line is, while Time’s revenues are still high enough that it would be silly to call the empire “doomed,” it’s difficult to see a way forward with such a nonsensical strategy and bewildered leadership. The end may be nearer than any of us would like to admit.