Stengel is being tested on a lot of levels now. This is the biggest job he has ever had, and in some ways he is still learning how to do it. In January, Time published an exclusive story on the new iPhone, in which writer Lev Grossman tweaked Apple CEO Steve Jobs about his secretive access to the product (“I don’t call Steve, Steve calls me”) and suggested that Apple had “some explaining” to do about backdated stock options. When the story hit the Web, Jobs called Stengel to complain (as it happens, Apple is a major advertiser in Time, and Jobs is a good friend of Huey’s). Stengel reacted by immediately excising the offending paragraphs from the Web (they have since been restored). Then he had Grossman come into the office to rewrite part of the piece for the print edition. Grossman was infuriated.
“I feel bad about the whole episode on both sides,” Stengel now says, explaining that the flap resulted from a miscommunication. “I’ll take the blame in the sense that there was an understanding that I had with Steve, which I did not tell the writer and that was an oversight on my part.” The backdated-stock-options part of the story wasn’t eliminated, he argues, just moved into a sidebar that ran in the magazine. Still, Stengel concedes that it was a weak moment for the magazine’s journalism. “Maybe a little bit,” he says.
Stengel has also drawn criticism for his selection of “You” as Time’s Person of the Year, depicted with a novelty mirror on the cover. He was roundly mocked on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show for his appearance on CNN to promote the issue. “[It’s] you!” announced Stengel, flashing the cover before American Morning host Soledad O’Brien. “You! Me! Everyone!”
Stengel claims it was good for the magazine. “I loved seeing myself on The Daily Show,” says Stengel. “I thought that was great. Was Time magazine talked about more than it’s been talked about in any way in a long time? Yes.”
Not in a good way, of course. The choice was widely perceived to be a mistake inside the magazine. “Well,” Stengel told one editor, “we’re only going to make it once.”
When I last see him, Stengel looks tired, with bags under his bloodshot eyes. Overseeing the layoffs, changing the delivery date and the design simultaneously, he says, “was like doing a triple half gainer and then having to smoke a pipe at the same time.”
The revolution has been hard on Huey too. “It’s not easy,” he says. “It’s not easy and it isn’t always fun.”
Having climbed to the pinnacles of their careers, neither seems to be exactly enjoying the experience. “At the moment, none of us are happy,” says Stengel. “It’s more fun when you’re in an era of plenty rather than an era of scarcity, when you’re starting magazines.”
The stakes are high for both Stengel and Huey. Inside Time Inc., there is speculation that with the leadership at Time Warner about to change in the next year or two—with CEO Richard Parsons stepping aside for president and COO Jeff Bewkes—the magazine company might be sold. (One somewhat far-fetched scenario has Norman Pearlstine making a run for it with the backing of investment company the Carlyle Group, where he is a senior media adviser.) Time Warner spokesperson Ed Adler gives assurances that “Time Inc. is not for sale. We’ve made a commitment to transition and grow the company.”
But the chances of a sale increase if Time Inc. can’t show profit growth quickly. A person who knows him says Huey thinks about the possibility of Time Inc.’s sale “every day.” It is a motivating force. Huey tells me that he has “no idea” if Time Inc. will be sold, but he hopes not. He and Ann Moore have found common ground in their desire to stay a part of Time Warner. “We think it’s the best for the people here,” he says. “We think it’s the best for the magazines.”
Whatever happens to Time magazine on his watch—whether it grows wildly successful or withers away—will be the thing he is remembered for. And Huey knows it. “Do I consider Time magazine to have an outsize importance to me and in some ways to this company? Yes,” he says.
“This is about Huey putting his stamp on the company and being seen as a bold leader,” says a Time Inc. editor. “And there’s nothing more important to John than being seen as bold.”
Huey shies away from talk of his legacy. “If you want somebody who has a legacy, Jann Wenner has a legacy, he started Rolling Stone. Ted Turner has a legacy, he started CNN. I don’t think people who pass through these jobs ... ” he trails off. “Ex-CEOs don’t mean spit. And neither do ex-editors-in-chief. That’s just the way it is.”