Usually, for the scribes lucky enough to go, the Time 100 Gala is a chance to score selfies with selected A-listers and indulge in top-shelf liquor at an open bar.
But at this year’s event, which is on Tuesday, employees of the nation’s most famous newsweekly may come armed with another mission: sidling up to one of the black-tie billionaires in attendance and convincing them of how much fun it would be to stop being a guest at the annual fête at Lincoln Center and to start putting the party on themselves.
Time magazine is up for sale, along with its fellow former titles in the Time, Inc. family like Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Money. In November the magazines were bought for $2.8 billion by the magazine conglomerate Meredith, which then promptly announced that they were on the block. Would-be media moguls the world over have been lining up to kick the tires on some of the most storied names in American journalism. And so even in a media landscape in which chaos has long been the norm, the past few months have been a whirlwind for reporters, editors, and business staff at a group of magazines that defined a sort of middlebrow American sensibility for much of the past century.
“There is just a lot of anxiety right now,” said one newsroom staffer, one of more than a half-dozen interviewed for this story. “People don’t know who is going to be signing their paychecks in 90 days or even if they will have jobs. We are all just kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
According to newsroom sources, there was some degree of hope when Meredith, backed by money from the Koch Brothers, took over from Time Inc. One of the most storied names in American publishing was going to see its sign removed from the side of its headquarters, but Meredith at least seemed to know something about successful magazine publishing. The Des Moines–based company was far removed from a Manhattan media mindset, but Meredith was also minting money from their stable of magazines. And since Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, and Rachael Ray Every Day aren’t exactly winning Pulitzers, it wasn’t hard to see a scenario where magazines like Time and Fortune might dovetail nicely, adding a bit of cachet and reporting muscle to the Meredith stable.
“I think some people were really hopeful about life with Meredith,” said one staffer. “By all accounts they are better at running a healthy media company than Time Inc. ever was.”
But the optimism quickly dissipated. In an interview with the New York Times, Meredith executive chairman Steve Lacy set the ethos of the midwestern media company apart from their rivals back east.
“You have to realize that the vast majority of all media companies’ consumers have a life beyond the Hudson River,” he told the paper. “The consumer we sell our product to has a very different life than what goes on on Manhattan Island.”
Lacy went on to take what many in the old Time Inc. headquarters saw as a dig at an image of the media elite from another era. “We don’t have drivers. We’d look silly, and it would be not in keeping with who we are,” he told the paper. “I presume you know that if I want a black car, I can get one.”
“It’s baffling,” said one staffer. “This is as earnest and straightlaced a place as I have ever worked. He seemed to be describing some magazine out of the 1960s. This is Time magazine. We are not sitting on a cloud deciding for the hoi polloi what is in and what is out.”
The mood soured further after a series of town halls in which staffers at the legacy properties felt that Meredith made clear that the magazine’s sizable investment in digital growth was insufficient, and further, that most of the magazines would be soon put on the block regardless.
“I think there is a sense that we wished that Meredith would have given it a try with us,” said another staffer. “But it seems like they just want to basically be a glorified catalogue company.”
And so now staffers at Time and Fortune and elsewhere are living in a kind of suspended animation — focusing on keeping up with the daily deluge of news in the Trump era, while hoping that an appropriate suitor comes along to snatch them up. According to sources in the various newsrooms and at the company, nothing so far has much changed, save for a series of cost-saving layoffs on the business side. According to a company spokesperson, Meredith wants keep their media properties at full strength in order to better entice a deep-pocketed buyer, and doesn’t see much benefit in getting involved in the daily running of magazines they are soon going to unload anyway. According to one source, the Time Inc. logo is still outside the magazine’s Washington, D.C., bureau.
“Direct deposit, email, expense reports — literally nothing is different,” said one staffer. “There is some Meredith swag and a few more Meredith magazines floating around the newsroom, but that’s pretty much it.”
At a town hall last month with staffers, Meredith CEO Tom Harty did say, in answer to a question, that Time and Fortune would not be sold to American Media, Inc., whose CEO David Pecker is a close Trump ally and who has been pining after the properties. That’s why staffers have started joking that they may go prospecting at the Time 100 Gala. Harty’s statement that they wouldn’t sell to Pecker was interpreted by many in the newsroom to mean that their next employer will be a benevolent billionaire type, someone who will buy the legacy titles for the prestige and invest in them thoroughly, but otherwise keep a hands-off approach.
Meredith has already been receiving offers, and a company spokesperson said that they hope to wrap up a sale in the next two to four months. But if turning Time into an upmarket National Enquirer is off the table, there is a lot of room between David Pecker and say, Jeff Bezos or Mike Bloomberg or Bill Gates — i.e., the kind of person who appreciates the wall between the news and business sides of publishing and understands the financial investment necessary to produce good journalism.
In some respects, Time magazine has been on a bit of a run – they recently scooped up the very highly regarded political journalist Molly Ball from The Atlantic, and a series of covers, including Ball’s profile of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a story about chaos surrounding the White House, have been well received in Beltway circles. The current occupant of the White House is obsessed with the magazine and who they put on the cover in a way a presidential administration hasn’t been since the Reagan era.
Reed Phillips III, a media investment banker with Oaklins DeSilva + Phillips, said that his firm had already received interest from six to eight potential buyers. A legacy media operation with existing titles would be the ideal buyer, industry sources said, since they would not need to spend money on back-office operations. But it remains to be seen who is willing to take a look.
Penske Media, which recently bought a stake in Rolling Stone, is taking a look at Fortune and Money magazines, according to one industry insider with knowledge of the company’s deliberations. Fortune and Money are likely to be sold together, and the former at least has a significant business empire of conferences and reports outside of its magazine business. Sports Illustrated remains an important pillar in sports journalism. It is possible that a new buyer could continue to use part of the existing Meredith infrastructure — for a fee, of course — but anybody who wants to build out Time to anything like its glory days of yore would be looking at somewhere between $5 to 10 million extra per year in expenses. Some industry insiders predicted that a likely scenario is not the white knight that many newsroom staffers hope for — a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos or Laurene Powell Jobs — but someone who ends up turning the magazine more into something like The Week, with more aggregation and less original reporting.
“If you own Time magazine, do you still get invited to the White House today? You probably don’t. It just doesn’t have the same cachet it used to,” said Phillips. “Even if you are a wealthy individual, you have to ask yourself if you want to spend this much money on something that may not have a lot of value in the long term.”
There is considerable grumbling in the newsroom that Meredith will, for an evening at least, bask in the glow of the celebrity of the Time 100 even as they actively seek buyers. The topic of who will be the new owner is a topic of constant newsroom gossip, employees told me, with many staffers adopting their own fantasy white knight to come in and return Time to its glory days.
“Is it chaotic and anxiety-producing and nerve-racking? Of course it is,” said one writer. “Welcome to a career in media in 2018.”