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June 9, 2014, 11:52 a.m.
Business Models

The newsonomics of Time Inc.’s anxious spinoff

Untethered from the growing parts of Time Warner, some of the most famous magazines in America will have to fight for themselves. Can a magazine strategy transfer well to digital?

As it enters new life as a new company, Time Inc. seems to have become a piñata for media watchers. The more iconic they are, it seems, the more they’re fair game, for everything from second-guessing to satire. Certainly, Time Inc. cooperated in that game over the last two decades, from Pathfinder’s early follies to Laura Lang’s undistinguished tenure — the company seems to have tried on more business models than almost any other. Throughout it all, its culture and structure — which served it so well through decades of riches — survived.

That structure has now changed. New CEO (but veteran Time exec) Joe Ripp ripped it apart in the fall, assailing the various fiefs and duchies. With his new partner-in-Time, chief content officer Norm Pearlstine, he’s reorganized around more common publisher/editor lines. They also cut more than 500 jobs, leaning up for the split. Great consternation prevailed — Is Time Inc. selling out?! — but all that action is just prelude to this week’s events. At the stroke of midnight Friday, Time Inc. became a standalone company, tossed out of a cushiony nest by parent Time Warner. Our question, post-split: Will it walk tall or wobble?

It’s clear that Ripp and Pearlstine — he of a long career at The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Time magazine (1994-2005) — have their eyes open. They’re believers in the new playbook of multiple revenue streams — from content marketing to native ads to events — and they’ve led a great deal of change in just nine months. All that’s just preparation, though. While some will consider those in charge just temporary holders of deck chairs on a slowly sinking ship, Time Inc.’s drama will be far more watchable than that.

2015 will be its real first year of testing; the remainder of this year will require the setting of big-time priorities. As a public company, we’ll get a clearer view of what’s going on and its results, which are much tougher to calculate among its privately-owned magazine giant peers. Time Inc.’s emergence may be more akin to the changes we’ve seen publicly play out a few blocks away at The New York Times. We have America’s largest consumer magazine company publicly playing out its own do-or-die strategy.

Like Viacom, News Corp, Scripps, and soon Tribune, Time Warner has seen old media assets for what they were financially: a drain on value. Though Time Warner’s remaining businesses in TV and movies (including HBO, Turner, and Warner Bros.) all face big challenges of their own, they’re all growing. Time Inc. isn’t. If you take out the impact of its late-in-the-year acquisition of American Express’ magazines, the company showed this trajectory: down 5 percent down in total revenue, 7 percent in ad revenue.

So Time Inc. enters life where it began 92 years ago, in Henry Luce’s vision: a standalone magazine company. We’ll begin to see this week which story traders buy: a revivified collection of brands newly primed for digital times, or a hapless, saddled-with-debt company just entering a new stage of decline. The Time Inc. debt story, soon to be accompanied by Tribune Publishing’s own spinoff debt burden, has received a fair amount of media attention. Time’s debt service on the $1.2 billion debt assigned it by the parent company in the spin isn’t huge considering Time Inc.’s size, amounting to an annual net interest payment of $40 to $50 million, after taxes, or around a seventh of its 2013 free cash flow of $384 million. Still, as a company losing revenues and needing to invest or acquire and hire and retain top talent, it’s just another handicap (“The newsonomics of the print orphanage, Tribune’s and Time Inc.’s”).

Square in the center of this whirlwind is Scott Havens, Time Inc.’s senior vice president for digital since March. As president of Atlantic Media, Havens played a leading role in reshaping that old brand into something new, shiny, and digital. He’s actually got only about a third or so of the 150 direct reports he had at the much-smaller Atlantic, given the size of Time Inc. and its still large number of VP-level-led divisions. He is somewhat used to matrixed organizations, given two years (2004-06) at Yahoo, which was followed by three years at Conde Nast’s late, sometimes lamented, and short-lived Portfolio.

Undeniably, though, as The Digital Guy, much of the catch-up transformation still required of Time Inc. will fall to him. His charge: Increase digital revenue.

I spoke with him and numerous others in and around the spin-off last week. Let’s take that spin and look at five of its major storylines, and see how accurate they may be.

“Time Inc. is a Frankenstein.”

It owns 95 brands — or as Michael Wolff puts it, “Time Inc. may no longer be a coherent idea.”

What if you took the Time Inc. name off the new building (the new company is saving millions by moving downtown, out of the mothership in midtown) and called the newco “Vox Media”? What does Vox CEO Jim Bankoff intend his company to become? A chain of fairly independent websites around passionate interests. What do Eater, Curbed, Racked, Polygon, SBNation, The Verge, and the new Ezra Klein Vox have to do with each other, other than a common platform and synergistic sales? Not much. Yet, without the legacy burdens, the tortured history — and the $400 million in cash flow — Vox simply wants to become the next-gen Time Inc.

There’s an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes movement in the new company, in technology, sales, and content. But the process of choosing a future has just begun. One key: Can the new Time move beyond its bureaucratic ways? “We can’t meet 27 times to get an approval,” says Havens. Or, in another construct — one those who have worked in big companies can appreciate — deciding “where things should sit and where the swim lanes are.”

Expect this portfolio of brands to change. Time Inc. must both decide its priorities and its needs, among them its scant presence in the tech space. Expect both title sales and tech-based acquisitions. Curiously, the core of what we think about as Time Inc. — Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and even Entertainment Weekly — are all struggling, and you could make an argument for selling them off and focusing on the more monthly, less digitally disrupted brands. It’s People, along with InStyle, Real Simple, Southern Living, and SI, that lead the company in earnings.

“Magazine companies are doomed.”

Sure, their revenues have ebbed, their digital revenues still make up no more than a tenth of their totals, and it’s easy to write them off as the Reader’s Digests of the digital age. But turn the magazine on its edge, up to the light, and what do you see: a vertical, in digital parlance.

Most of Time Inc.’s titles are topically based. That’s the good news. The web is a cacophony of passions and interests, right? So niched magazines should fit right in. “We’re a media company, not a magazine company,” says Havens. Of course, that’s what every other national newspaper and magazine business, including Time Inc.’s peers and competitors Conde Nast, Hearst, and Meredith, all say as well. In fact, Meredith makes even a nichier point: “We’re a women’s marketing company.”

The bad news: The competition in almost every niche area is already fairly wide. Time Inc.’s business and personal finance plays in Fortune and Money are up against all the other old media brands that have better transitioned ahead of them — the Journal, the FT, and Bloomberg, just to name three, not to mention the newbies like Business Insider and Quartz ferociously fighting for the same audiences and same advertiser spending.

We could play that mix-and-match game with many of Time Inc.’s brands: great brand value, poorly transitioned by previous Time Inc. regimes, and now behind. Not behind as in out of the running — but behind.

Then, again, “magazine” is far too narrow a way to look at it. Just as with newspapers, the printed form defines the product, but it’s other characteristics that help us make sense of the field. For instance, it’s national, by and large, and that’s the field that is most disrupted by digital advertising. More importantly, it’s the frequency of print that may inform its longevity. By their very nature, daily newspapers have lost the most in advertising and had a hard time keeping print readers. Weekly magazines are next, with Time magazine now the clear owner of what used to be the battleground of American weekly newsmagazines. Even People, long responsible for more than half the company’s profits and value, is challenged by the new world order.

How might the transition from burden to opportunity proceed? Take your pick — something Ripp must do — of Time Inc.’s topical areas. Say, golf, wine, or family. Keep print, but reduce the frequency of it, lowering costs. Build out mobile-friendly, visual products. Leap over digital display into native and content marketing. Go beyond reading to doing, with golf services, wine apps, or family help. Signaling this intention, the company announced the acquisition of family calendaring app Cozi, just a few days before the TIME ringing-in on Wall Street.

“Time Inc. is too big.”

The dream team, assembled by Ripp and Pearlstine, could become a nightmare of execution. Most of that team is in place, with one notable exception: a chief data officer, a position that’s foundational in the age of analytics. While much of the coverage of the Time Inc. changes have focused on digital content, it is its sales operation — and its transformation — that will determine the survival and prosperity of the company. The old Time Inc. was used to selling heavily to literally dozens of ad buyers, most not too far from its office. The new sales operation must break lots of new ground with new ad buyers and new ad formats, and, like its peers, sell “audience” and not titles or rate bases.

What happens to big companies that can’t get it done? They get smaller. Time Inc. already has. Unless this regime can find success where others failed, it may well be “too big” to be successful.

“Time Inc. is too small.”

It’s big on the web, approaching 90 million unique visitors, though engagement is an issue. Havens says it needs to get to 150 million and get closer to the top six — Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, and Twitter — to reap a higher level of digital ad reward. Of course, that’s also everyone else’s goal among the top 25 web sites.

Whatever its size, the big problem is that minus sign in front of its revenues. That’s standard issue for modern legacy media, with only a few turning positive. “We’ve got to bend the growth curve up,” says Havens. With digital revenues no more than a tenth of overall ones, “we need to get to the mid-20s,” he says. Where might that money come from?

Surprisingly, TV. Still commanding $80 billion in national revenues, and ripe for all kinds of disruption, TV is a big target among the digital news disruptors, as far flung as Schibsted’s strategy with its VGTV (“The newsonomics of VGTV”). Among other initiatives, Time Inc.’s got 50 recurring video shows in place, and 30 more in the making.

“Time Inc. is too public.”

Of course, it’s long been part of a public company, but it’s received shelter along the way by other parts of the company less disrupted by digital. Now untethered, time is the greatest enemy of Time Inc. It waits for no Man of the Year, or next year’s swimsuit issue. Its time, once again, is now.

Time magazine cover from January 3, 1983 issue.

POSTED     June 9, 2014, 11:52 a.m.
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