Time Magazine Destroyed Itself By Selling Out To Fake News
oral history of how the pre-eminent media organization of the 20th
century ended up on the scrap heap by becoming the DNC's shill rag
SRIDHAR PAPPU and JAY STOWE
was once an empire. Now it is being sold for parts.
Inc. began, in 1922, with a simple but revolutionary idea hatched by
Henry R. Luce and Briton Hadden. The two men, graduates of Yale
University, were rookie reporters at The Baltimore News when they drew
up a prospectus for something called a “news magazine.” After raising
$86,000, Mr. Hadden and Mr. Luce quit their jobs. On March 3, 1923, they
published the first issue of Time: The Weekly News-Magazine.
1929, the year of Mr. Hadden’s sudden death, Mr. Luce started Fortune.
In 1936, he bought a small-circulation humor publication, Life, and
transformed it into a wide-ranging, large-format weekly. Later came
Sports Illustrated, Money, People and InStyle. By 1989, with more than
100 publications in its fold, as well as significant holdings in
television and radio, Time Inc. was rich enough to shell out $14.9
billion for 51 percent of Warner Communications, thus forming Time
flush times went on for a while. But then, starting about a decade ago,
the company began a slow decline that, in 2018, resulted in theMeredith
Corporation, a Des Moines, Iowa, media company heavy on lifestyle
monthlies like Better Homes and Gardens, completing its purchase of the
once-grand Time Inc. in adealthat
valued the company at $2.8 billion. The new owner wasted no time in
prying the Time Inc. logo from the facade of its Lower Manhattan offices
it would seek buyers for Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and Money.
The deadline for first-round bids was May 11.
reached out to more than two dozen editors and writers who worked at
Time Inc., asking them to reflect on the heyday of this former epicenter
of power and influence, as well as its decline. These interviews have
been condensed and edited.
Inc. rose to prominence at a time when old-world mores still held sway
in a society about to undergo a transformation. In 1959, the company
left its home at Rockefeller Plaza and moved into the grand, 48-story
Time & Life building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas, a cobalt blue
curved sculpture by William Crovello marking the company’s presence at
the center of the media universe.
StolleyManaging editor, Life; founding managing editor,
People; editorial director, Time Inc. (Years at company: 1953-2015)We
were at 9 Rockefeller Plaza, across from the skating rink. On closing
night, to prevent or make it unnecessary for writers and editors to go
out of the building for dinner, they would serve dinner and preceded
that with the so-called drinks cart. It was not abused, as far as I was
able to tell. The food was good and it came from a French restaurant.
KellyManaging editor of Time; managing editor, Time Inc.
(1978-2009)By the time I arrived, the so-called bar cart was a
copy boy who would come around on Tuesdays and give each senior editor
two bottles of liquor and a couple bottles of wine for that week’s
closing nights. You could go into a senior editor’s office on a Thursday
or Friday night for a drink, but you’d be crazy to, because the senior
editor would ask, “So, how’s the story going?”
IsaacsonTime political correspondent; Time managing editor;
CNN chief executive officer (1979-2003)There were gentlemen
writers and editors and women researchers who stayed up late and often
had affairs. People just stayed in the office and would make drinks, or
people would go out to long dinners. You felt like you were in some
movie version of an elegant magazine.
CastroDeputy managing editor, People; managing editor,
People en Español (1987-2014)The first time I was on the 34th
floor, where the executive offices were, I thought I was in some part of
the Pentagon. Everything was shiny. Everything was marble.
FedarkoReporter, staff writer, Time (1991-1998)In
the Time & Life Building,the
offices on the inside — the offices that do not have windows — those
were offices for junior-level people. And the offices on the outside of
each floor, the ones with the windows, were for the writers and the
editors. But the remarkable thing is that the majority of the
researchers and fact checkers were women, and the majority of the
editors and writers were men.
Inc. had a strict pecking order and a largely white patriarchal office
culture that was slow to adjust to the changes happening in the world
beyond its walls.
GibbsResearcher, staff writer, editor in chief, Time
(1985-2017)They had brought in female writers and editors in
the early ’80s — Maureen Dowd and Alessandra Stanley and Michiko
Kakutani and Susan Tifft, many of whom did not stay very long. But they
also began to hire male fact checkers, partly with the notion that it
might turn the fact-checking slot into a more entry-level boot camp
position than an entirely service profession.
DowdReporter, staff writer, Time (1981-83)I came in
at the end of a culture where the editors and writers were
overwhelmingly male and the researchers were overwhelmingly female. The
researchers were still known then as “the vestal virgins.” Torrid
affairs abounded and several of the top male editors had been married
multiple times, the last time to much younger researchers or
secretaries. I remember one of my bosses being angry when he found out
that his office couch was being used for late-night trysts. One night, I
was in my New York apartment and the phone rang. It was a researcher I
had an acquaintance with — a beautiful, sexy young woman who had been
tangled in office liaisons. She said she was going to walk to the East
River and jump in. I talked her out of it but it added to my sense that
the culture was warped.
culture was so “Mad Men,” even at the height of the feminist movement,
that my boss felt free, when we worked late closing the magazine on
Fridays nights, taking all the young male writers out to dinner at the
steakhouse downstairs without a thought that they were walking past the
offices of the only two women in the hall — me and my friend, the late
Susan Tifft. Susan, a staunch feminist, confronted the boss. But we
never did get to that steakhouse.
MinStaff writer, senior editor, People; assistant managing
editor, InStyle (1993-2002)There was a late-night closing
process and it never got any better. Part of that process was having
largely female fact-checkers — known, at People, as reporters — go down
to Cité and drag wasted senior male editors to sign off on their copy.
That was absurd, that whole nature of women trying to corral men into
CarlsonWhite House correspondent and columnist, Time
(1988-2005)Time basked in its maleness. It wasn’t a hostile
environment. It was just a male environment and an Ivy League
environment. It was a big deal when I got the column — the first woman
columnist. They ran a story about it in The Times. Really? How could
that be a story in 1994?
NelsonFounding editor, managing editor InStyle; Managing
editor, People; editorial director, Editor-in-Chief, Time Inc.
(1992-2012)Was I ever propositioned by my colleagues? Of course
I was. But I was also lucky to be supported by powerful men: Henry
Muller, Lanny Jones and John Huey in particular. Few people understood
that Huey, the “good old boy” from the South, was a feminist ally who
supported my career and that of many other women
Elias LegerStaff writer at Fortune and People (1999-2002)I
first joined Time Inc. as an intern at SI for Kids in 1996. Among the
many editors I met across the building was Roy Johnson Jr., and he
became my mentor. All the black staffers knew each other — there weren’t
that many of us.
S. Johnson Jr.,Reporter, senior editor, assistant managing
editor, Sports Illustrated; senior editor, Money; editor-at-large,
Fortune (1978-81; 1989—91; 2003-2006)I was excited that my
first job would be at Sports Illustrated. The second wave of
African-Americans experienced things in corporate America that our
predecessors were unable to experience. And we were prepared and we were
unprepared. I went to a predominantly white middle school and high
school. I went to Stanford. White people didn’t scare me. There were
many times that I was reminded that I was a rarity in those hallways,
but I never felt like I didn’t belong. Others might have thought that,
but I really didn’t give a damn what they thought.
the wider culture moved from the industrial age into the information
age, Time Inc. was still making money. Although the drink carts had
passed into memory, the staff enjoyed a workplace culture that — in
the media business, at least — would soon be extinct.
GainesManaging editor, People, Life, Time; corporate
editor, Time Inc. (1976-1996)When I got to People in 1976,
everybody said, “You should have been here when it was great.” And that
was because Life had folded as a weekly and People was looked down upon
as a runt reincarnation. We got a lot bigger and made a lot of money. We
were hiding money. Seriously. We were hiding money so that our targets
from one year to the next would not increase that much. I’m not sure how
the business side did that, but we were making so much money that when I
was managing editor I took the entire staff of People to Key Largo for a
CastroSometime in 1988, a few months after I arrived
at People, we had an off-site at Key Largo. On the morning we left the
Time Inc. building for the airport, the number two editor hopped on the
bus I was sitting in, popped open a mini airplane bottle of booze,
gulped it and exclaimed, “Let the games begin!” The bus erupted in
MinBy the early- to mid-90s, it was well established
that People was the cash cow of Time Inc. I had come from working at a
newspaper and there were crazy things: Let’s have a Hawaiian party for
the staff! And they would truck sand in and create a beach inside a
conference room. There would be exotic birds and drinks and maybe a
band. Alcohol was a huge theme, and there was one off-site where people
got so trashed they drove a golf cart into the water and destroyed it.
And it was all, “Ha ha ha!” Things that would never fly today in a
CohenCorrespondent, staff writer, senior writer, Time
(1995-2001)The mid-1990s was this rollicking time. Almost
everyone got a very nice office with a nice big TV and a nice couch that
you could nap on. And there was smoky glass so that no one really knew
if you were awake or asleep.
KellyIf there was one moment in the ’90s where Time
was able to flex its muscle and show how much a part of American culture
it had been, it was the 75th anniversary party at Radio City Music Hall
in 1998. We invited pretty much everyone who had been on the cover of
Time — and a shocking number showed up! From the President of the United
States to Mikhail Gorbachev to Joe DiMaggio to Muhammad Ali to Leni
Riefenstahl to Jack Kevorkian. That night showed the history of Time and
the power of the brand, a word I initially despised but have come to
NelsonEarly on, I recall a very formal luncheon
inside the Time Inc building with Fidel Castro. I don’t think he ate a
single bite of food or took one sip of water, but he told some amazing
tales. Equally memorable, many years later, was a visit from Steve Jobs,
when he handed us each an astonishing new device – the Ipad – which
felt, that day, like a preview of our future. All of the titles had the
power to draw attention from newsmakers, so you never knew who to
McLeanReporter, staff writer, editor-at-large, Fortune
(1995-2008)The perfect sign of the top was in March 2001,
Fortune took us all, both the business side and the editorial side, to
Hawaii for a week.
Elias LegerWe spent a week on the island of Lanai at
the hotel where Bill Gates got married. I had a piña colada in my hand
at all times, from breakfast on. Many of us sat around at the pool
going, “Yeah, this is probably the tipping point.”
OkrentManaging editor, Life; editor-at-large, Time, Inc.
(1989-2001; 2006-2014)When I went to work there in 1989, it was
just so strange, because I had prided myself on being an outsider and I
was coming into the belly of the beast. And once I got inside the belly
I said, “Oooh, this is pretty great.” If I needed something in
Vladivostok tomorrow, I could get it.
IsaacsonIt’s a shame that young, aspiring
journalists will not likely find such opportunities these days to be
trained by people like Strobe Talbott as you wander Russia in the era of
glasnost. You remember when Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik for
the summit? We had six or seven reporters on that story, two great
photographers, editors, writers, just trying to figure out the
Reagan-Gorbachev relationship. Now people would probably ridicule it as
being profligate but we thought it was important. And it was.
Taro GreenfeldStaff writer, Time; editor, Time Asia; editor
at large, Sports Illustrated (1998-2007)When you went abroad as
an editor for Time magazine as an expat, it was like going abroad as a
banker. There were all the allowances. Tax equalization. A housing
allowance. Your kids’ school would be paid for. You got a company car.
You got a driver. You got club memberships. I don’t know whether
packages like that exist anymore in journalism.
CastroAs the writer for the “Chatter” column at
People, my job was to go out, preferably five nights a week, and get
items and make connections. I got a call from the number two at the
time. I go into his office, and he said, “I want to talk to you about
your expense report.” I was like a Boy Scout, only spending what I had
to. And he said, “Peter you’re not spending enough.” I said, “But I’m
going out five nights a week!” He said, “Well, go out more! Stay out
longer!” I did the best I could without ending up in A.A.
Kimstaff writer, senior editor, Sports Illustrated; staff
writer, senior editor, Entertainment Weekly; assistant managing
editor, People (1987-2005)When I was at People, I had to
approve the photo department expenses. Not long into my tenure, there
was that famous set of pictures that had Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez
kissing in a convertible — the first affirmation that they were a
couple. We got into a bidding war with Us Weekly over those pictures and
we ended up buying them for $50,000. That’s what triggered everything in
tabloid culture and the paparazzi. After that, every week was me
approving tens of thousands of dollars in paparazzi pictures. A lot of
times I was buying pictures I knew we weren’t going to run, just to keep
them out of the hands of our competitors. I once spent $10,000 on a
photo of Eminem and his daughter knowing we wouldn’t use it, but knowing
no one else could, either.
OkrentIt seemed as if no one was paying attention to
the money that was going out, because there was so much coming in.
Time Warner merged with AOL in 2000, the company seemed poised to
conquer the internet. History, however, had other plans. Subscribers
and advertisers turned away from the core publications. Budgets
shrank. Layoffs became commonplace. In 2014, Time Inc. was spun off
from the Time Warner mother ship, and in 2015 it left the Time &
Life building for a comparatively modest space on Liberty Street in
PearlstineEditor in chief; executive vice president and
chief content officer; vice chairman (1995-2005; 2013-2017)The
merger with Warner changed Time Inc. and its culture in good ways and
bad. HBO and Time Inc.’s cable assets were shifted to other divisions.
With Jerry Levin [the former Time Warner chief executive officer who
engineered the merger with AOL], and Walter Isaacson assembling an
extraordinary team, I thought Time Inc. was on the cutting edge.
FedarkoWhile there was a tremendous amount of
prestige and fulfillment that came with working there, there was also
quite a bit of arrogance. We viewed Time magazine as this vehicle that
basically taught the American public what was important and what you
needed to know over the course of the previous week’s news events in a
way that is impossible to conceive of now, when the news cycle is five
minutes instead of five days.
KimIt was very clear that the internet was going to
be a huge part of the future of media. But for most of the time I was
there, people treated it as a nuisance. It was a problem to be solved,
not an opportunity.
McLeanAll of Time, Inc. was very flush with money
after the dot-com boom and we had already started to chronicle its
demise — but nobody saw that it would be our demise, too.
MinI was there the day that the merger between AOL
and Time Warner happened and if you were at all at any level of
management — and even if you weren’t — you had stock options. There was
a lot of buzz in the office of “How much are you going to sell today?”
There were people who sold everything that day and got quite wealthy and
were the smartest people at the company. I sold half of what I had, and
the second half didn’t even matter because it never amounted to
anything. But that was probably the last great day at Time, Inc. You had
senior editors who were able to make six-figure sums that day, if not
more, and top editors who probably made several million dollars.
GainesI think Jerry Levin should be credited for
being out front of the digital revolution. The idea that we had to
become digital was correct and was foresighted. I blame Time Warner for
bilking the magazine brands for their profits and not putting investment
toward their digital future.
KellyThings truly changed in 2005, when it was clear
that Time Inc. was a declining asset but still part of this very big
company that expected to get its billion dollars a year in profit. The
revenue, the profit each year, was going down. There had to be a lot of
cutbacks. A lot of people got fired.
PearlstineJohn Huey succeeded me as editor in chief
toward the end of 2005 — a very good year for the company. It was only
when I returned to Time Inc. in the fall of 2013 that I found myself
asking, “What happened?” I was part of the fifth management team in four
years. There had been very little investment in new media. Before my
return, Time Inc. was still thinking of digital as a product for the
desktop, even though it had begun to decline in importance as mobile and
video were clearly gaining in importance.
McDonellManaging editor, Sports Illustrated; editor, Time
Inc. Sports Group (2002-2012)I had freedom, autonomy, got to
develop all kinds of digital stuff. The problem was there was no
significant reinvestment. Time Inc.’s relationship with Time Warner was
fundamentally feudal. That’s where the profits went.
NelsonFor years, Time Inc was run by a team of
brilliant business leaders, publishers with deep knowledge of the
company and the industry. Then we went from an 80-year-long winning
streak to a storm of change – a string of outside CEOs in rapid
succession, insufficient digital investment, the economic meltdown of
2008, and a growing frustration and lack of confidence from Time Warner
McLeanI remember sitting next to Jeff Bewkes, the
CEO of Time Warner, at an internal Time Inc. event that was celebrating
journalists. And he asked what I had done before Fortune, and I said,
“Oh, I worked at Goldman.” And he looked at me like, why would I leave
that to do this? And I thought, Uh-oh, it’s over.
PearlstineThe constant changes in management and in
strategy had an adverse impact on Time Inc. and its employees. From the
fall of 2013 through 2014, our management team had no choice but to
focus all of its energies on the spinoff from Time Warner. The spinoff
freed us to evolve from a print company to a multi-platform media
company, but we were relatively small, making it hard to catch up.
ERA ENDS, ANOTHER BEGINS
year after Time Inc. left its longtime home in Midtown Manhattan for
Liberty Street, an even more dramatic change took place: The purchase
of the company by Meredith and the erasure of the Time Inc. name, both
physically and symbolically.
GleickSenior writer, Time; deputy editor, People
(1994-2014)My feeds were filled with people posting pictures of
the Time Inc. sign coming down and the Meredith sign going up basically
the minute the deal closed. From the outside, the haste struck me as so
depressing. Why the race to obliterate a great legacy? Friends who were
there describe an awkward catered “welcome breakfast” that was brought
in to the downtown offices the Monday after the deal closed. Some
“legacy Meredith people,” as they’re called, came down from Third
Avenue. And to us they felt like interlopers, so it was weird to
realize, “Oh no, wait, we, the Time Inc. folks, are the interlopers.”
O’ConnorEditorial director for health, executive editor,
Time (2014-2018)By the time the acquisition was announced, we’d
been hearing about it for months. So we all knew — or at least we
believed — this was going to happen. When it did, I think a considerable
portion of the staff felt a strange relief, at least at first. But, as
is human nature, many people began to worry about what the news meant
for them. Would they lose their job? If not, would they be forced to
move to Des Moines? It was a tough day. Mostly, it was a sad day. I
would guess that a lot of wine was consumed that night.