It’s not easy to find people who want to take on management operations like this. Bewkes first offered the job of CEO to Mike Klingensmith, a former Time Inc. CFO, who turned it down. Last summer, Bewkes settled on Joe Ripp, a blunt, silver-haired finance executive. Ripp joined Time Inc. in 1985 and rose to serve as CFO of Time Inc. and Time Warner. After leaving in 2004, he worked as a kind of corporate firefighter running into burning buildings. In 2008, he became chairman of the Journal Register Company as the newspaper chain emerged from bankruptcy. Ripp slashed costs, invested in digital, and engineered a sale to a hedge fund. “I didn’t go to the best school in the world,” Ripp says (he graduated from Manhattan College in the Bronx). “Somebody told me if you want to have a fun career, take on the hard job.” Time Inc., he says, “is a hard job.”
Ripp had plans to blow up the Luce culture and was getting resistance. “When I came back, I found an organization where almost 8,000 people could say no. And no one seemed to be able to say yes,” Ripp says. Last summer, he invited Martha Nelson, the editor-in-chief, to his Nantucket home and told her he was thinking of doing away with the editor-in-chief title and creating a chief content officer. In this scenario, magazine editors would no longer report to her. Instead, they would work for the titles’ publishers. It would be a tectonic shift for a company that had all but pioneered the concept of the “church-state” separation of journalism and business. “I could not be a part of that,” Nelson told Ripp.
Back in New York, Ripp invited Pearlstine to breakfast. Pearlstine, who at the time was working at Bloomberg LP as chief content officer, showed none of Nelson’s reservations. “I thought there were so many layers in the editor-in-chief job,” Pearlstine says. “It actually infantilized the editors, and they were being second-guessed on everything from cover shoots to whether the covers had too much yellow in them. I just thought that the editors would be much stronger if they felt really responsible for the brands. If you don’t like what they’re doing, then you change editors.” A few weeks later, Ripp called Pearlstine with an offer. “It took me about five seconds to say yes,” Pearlstine says.
And so, one morning in late October, Ripp called Nelson into his office and informed her she was being replaced with a chief content officer. He couched the move as central to his mission to reinvent the company for the future.
“Who is it?” Nelson asked, expecting Ripp had recruited a new-media visionary from a web start-up.
“It’s Norm,” Ripp replied. According to a person briefed on the conversation, Nelson burst out laughing.
“Norm?” she said. “Really?”
The two men now responsible for charting Time Inc.’s future make for an odd pair of change agents: Ripp is 62; Pearlstine is 71. During the last dot-com boom, Ripp was known inside Time Warner as being the skeptic. When one AOL executive told him he thought like “an old-media guy,” Ripp reportedly shot back, “Good, because all you new-media guys are going bankrupt.” But both Ripp and Pearlstine now say they have found religion in digital media. Time Inc., they insist, needs to adapt. “If you have a church and nobody shows up, it doesn’t work so well,” Ripp says. “One of the reasons I have Norman back as my partner and not some kid from Vox is that he understands [Time Inc.’s] traditions. And we understand we need to change.”
When Ripp first discussed taking the CEO job with Bewkes, he said that Time Inc. needed to stop thinking of itself as a magazine company. But what exactly Time Inc. will become depends on who is talking. Ripp tells me it will be a significant player in video. (The company has backed the online channel 120 Sports and has rolled out channels for sports, celebrity news, and business.) Ripp also wants to branch into e-commerce, conferences, and events. Pearlstine praises Forbes’s user-generated content model. He supports “native advertising,” the practice of running sponsored content that looks similar to editorial content, and also said his dream acquisition is LinkedIn. M. Scott Havens, a digital executive Ripp hired from Atlantic Media, recently told The Guardian that Time Inc. needs to build “the next Gilt, the next Facebook.”
None of this talk has eased skeptics’ doubts. “What is this company?” one recently departed editor asked me. “They’ve declared print dead and hastened the end of the magazine business. But they don’t have an idea of what the company is instead.” Given the crushing debt load, roughly two and a half times earnings, that has to be serviced somehow, many inside the company anticipate extreme budget cuts. And Ripp’s finance background has triggered speculation that Time Inc. is being gussied up for a sale. “Private equity could drain the cow until there’s nothing left,” speculated another longtime Time Inc. executive.