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NORM’S TIME: Norman Pearlstine surprised many in the media world when he departed Bloomberg LP last month to become the chief creative content officer of Time Inc. Martha Nelson, the company’s first female editor in chief in 90 years, departed after Time Inc. installed a new structure under which editors will now report to business executives overseeing different divisions of the magazine publisher.
To many, Time Inc.’s restructuring — and Pearlstine’s return to the company whose editorial operations he once headed — stirred further worries of yet another breach in the so-called wall between “church and state” in journalism. On Thursday morning at the Bryant Park Grill in Manhattan, Pearlstine was, ahem, grilled about the issue by moderator and director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School Alex Jones.
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“I’ve always thought that editors sometimes in wanting to lump business as a distinction from editorial make a mistake,” Pearlstine said. “You ought to have a measure for editors. They ought to be judged by renewal rates, by subscriptions, by newsstand sales or whatever measure is appropriate, whether it’s uniques or page views or video downloads. While that is something I’ve never been able to persuade anyone of, the idea that an editor thinks of himself or herself as a marketer, thinks of himself or herself as someone who is actually responsible for that customer’s experience, seems so obvious to me. I’ve never understood why it wasn’t encouraged.”
Jones gently reminded Pearlstine that the tenuous balance is in place for the sake of “credibility.” Pearlstine agreed, underscoring that he had no fear of the Time Inc. “brand” being damaged with the new reporting structure.
Jones danced around Pearlstine’s future plans for Time Inc., as the firm prepares to be spun off from parent company Time Warner Inc. in the second quarter of 2014. “There’s a lot to be done,” Pearlstine said flatly. “Any successful enterprise, especially one to be publicly held, needs to have cash flow through revenue. That is axiomatic.”
Without a “big pile of cash,” Pearlstine will look at the “efficiencies” of the company and “budgets.”
“If you ask, ‘Can you change everything at Time Inc. in four months?’ you’d be foolish to try,” he said. “I think everything that [Time Inc. chief executive officer] Joe [Ripp] is pointing to is how do we get the efficiency and the funds to invest in our future and I think you see will that very quickly.”
Part of the firm’s revenue generation will come from native advertising and video. While the latter is somewhat benign, the former has ruffled feathers among the editorial set, as the line between editorial content and advertising appears blurred to the reader.
“I’m not as troubled by native advertising. It’s an advertorial — they’ve been in magazines forever. The difference is that it’s in a typeface and a font that no editor ever reads, but customers do,” Pearlstine said, explaining that the “need” varies from publication to publication.
For instance, Fortune and Time would not be ideal for native advertising, but lifestyle magazines such as InStyle or People may be better suited.
Buzzier topics included Pearlstine’s thoughts on the demise of local journalism and his love for gossip hubs TMZ and people.com — which seemed antithetical, yet simultaneously honest.
“We have not yet come up with a business model that can support much of the journalism that is important,” said Pearlstine, speaking of the industry in general. “I have lots of concerns, particularly about how people are informed about their towns, their counties, their states…[news] that allows them to really participate in citizenship.”
In the same breath, he lauded People magazine.
“There’s no better reported publication than People that I’m aware of,” he said, while mentioning entertainment cash cow TMZ. He admitted to asking himself why People has not gone the same route as TMZ in paying for news tips when it already pays for celebrity baby photos, for instance.
“It’s a tough one to resolve. So far we have not gone the TMZ route. You wouldn’t want to with the People brand. Whether you would find a place [to go that route] in the organization or not, I don’t know,” Pearlstine mused. “I’m a reader of TMZ. I love TMZ, but if I love it so much why would I say, ‘I never would touch that stuff?’”