I’ve almost finished a novel about the media industry and the rise and fall of an aging publishing executive who sees the Internet in particular and digital in general as a many-headed hydra that has to be struck down on every occasion. My White Knight carries a real sword, taken from a German officer in World War II in hand-to-hand combat by his late father, and for a while was a hit on the media circuit because his keynote usually consisted of taking a whack at a rather impressive hydra built for the occasion. My hero, always true to his own mythology, fills his head with pyrric victories and other wooly notions. We will forgive him if he thinks that a mobile strategy means moving around a lot and margin is what resides on the edge of a page. I’m holding out hope that this righteous but incompetent executive might still decide to fall on his luscious sword.
The real sword he takes up is in defense of the brand, because he knows, like many of his fictional friends, that once the brand is diluted, drifting in and out of social media like a lost child, appearing on undifferentiated publishing platforms, its imprimatur, authority and commercial value is reduced. So our Mr. White might go down in a blaze of glory, a leap from the Eiffel Tower, or in an act of self-immolation during Fashion Week, his inevitable home. But our man, a raging Lothario with a deep Mother Complex, will die with print magazines in his hands and a song in his heart.
Perhaps the pressure brands face today from the many-headed digital hydra invites a discussion of whether magazines, in this age of digital disruption, social media and the atomization of content, have the same endurance, staying power, and connection to the individual or psyche as they had a generation ago. After all, magazines are ideas. They are brands. They are archetypes. Certainly the many titles devoted to self-help, self-improvement and DIY in the broadest sense, are based on a kind of psychological positivism. George Green, the former President of International at Hearst International, said that the most important American export of his generation was the “can-do” attitude embodied in US magazines. Green is spot on. I have launched magazines and digital businesses in twenty countries and found that the optimism, audacity, and sense of empowerment found in US titles are considered real draws.
Do we overstate the value of magazine brands? A magazine can be looked at as an archetype, that is, a big and recognizable idea that informs our modern narrative and instructs our behavior, but digital, demographic, and psychographic realities will eventually have their say and their way. After all, movies and video games aside, the Wise Old Man is not what he used to be. He’s on Medicare, walks with a cane and is pretty much ignored by his children and grandchildren.
Given the somewhat apocalyptic reporting on the likely sale of Time Inc.’s big moneymakers (People, InStyle, Real Simple, etc.) to Meredith, I walked by the Time Warner building at Columbus Circle in Manhattan to make sure the company logo was intact and the sky hadn’t fallen yet. I’ve been hearing about “disruption” in the magazine business for almost twenty years , but there seems something very different and sobering about this story; something very final.
For Jeff Bercovici at Forbes.com, this potential sale is another item in an already calamitous 2013 calendar: Reader’s Digest has filed for bankruptcy and Rolling Stone barely escaped the same fate. Earlier, Newsweek ceased print publication. Playboy went to a private equity firm. In 2009, Businessweek sold for $6 million and TV Guide for a buck. For Bercovici, the icons are crumbling. He has a point. It is reasonable to conclude that the disruption that comes from technology, social media, and programmatic ad buying can be particularly harmful to magazines that no longer resonate substantially within a culture or psychographic set. So this is not just about content platforms, devices and delivery. It is also about whether brands continue to touch the collective psyche during these tumultuous times. Private equity firms can delay a reckoning, but evidence suggests that the magazine brand lifecycle might be shorter than we think.
The New York Times’ David Carr suggests Time Warner management wanted to cash out on its most profitable magazines while they were still throwing off a lot of money. He writes: “Disruption in various economic sectors takes place over years as insurgents rise and former titans crumble, but its effects often become clear in a signature moment. The specter of Time Inc., which lent its name to one of the largest media companies in the world, being pushed out the door like a party guest who overstayed his welcome is a stark reminder of how the game had changed.”
Perhaps the most acerbic and chilling account of this story is by Michael Wolff in the Guardian newspaper (www.guardian.co.uk), who makes clear in the article’s title that “The fall of Time Inc. is more about bad leadership than a dying industry.” Wolff suggests—and many would agree—that the signature moment for Time Warner was when the chairman Gerard Levine “engineered a deal, possibly the most infamous ever engineered in corporate America, in which AOL bought Time Warner, destroying billions of dollars in value, breaking the spirits of tens of thousands of employees, and ending the growth as well as the dominance of the company.”
Wolff writes that, by 2008, Time Inc. was a lost ship and points a finger at the eight-year reign of CEO Ann Moore. He observes that during this period vast resources and considerable brain power were devoted to digital adaption. “I’m not sure there is any company that has spent so much time talking about its digital future to such little effect. This was farce on quite an amazing scale.”
Exaggeration and animus aside, there are compelling ironies here. Even if Time Inc. did not have its C-level house in order, I know of no publishing company that has given so much back to the business in terms of developing industry standards, specifications, and best business practices shared broadly with other magazines at home and abroad. I saw much of this first-hand while at MPA, the magazine association. For a generation, Time Inc. was the first citizen of magazine publishing and its executives were tireless and unselfish in their contributions to the common good.
Michael Wolff has been called the “bitchiest media big foot” around, and he doesn’t hold back here in an account that sometimes reads like fiction. But he gets some credit for saying things that have been whispered for too long in the corridors of power. He might be right that Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Fortune, apparently not included in any prospective deal, will have new life when unencumbered by a large bureaucracy, editorial overhang, and unfocused corporate leadership. In a new place far from the corner office, these magazines could represent a “fine opportunity.” These titles represent big ideas, have close ties to our history and culture, and resonate as archetypes. Perhaps they just need room to breathe.
It is no small irony that Time magazine, during a period that the parent was downsizing staff by 6% and the news about a pending sale was trickling out, published a 20,000-word cover article entitled “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us” by Steven Brill. It’s an amazing piece and gives lie to the current political discussion about medical care and Medicare. Everyone should read it.
This represents long-form journalism and a magazine brand at its best.