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The Time of Their Lives

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Stengel with Time Inc. editor-in-chief John Huey.  

Huey disregarded any succession ideas Kelly might have had and told him he would be hiring outside the company—automatically discounting at least three masthead editors who wanted the job. He did, however, ask Kelly what kind of editor he might choose. Kelly said somebody with an even temperament.

“You mean not an asshole?” asked Huey.

“Yes, not an asshole,” replied Kelly.

Huey first offered the job to Daniel Okrent, editor of Life magazine in the nineties, the first public editor of the New York Times, and now a popular historian. An amiable, silver-haired 58-year-old, Okrent has a sharp eye for the internal goings-on at Time Inc. He and Huey have been close since the nineties, when Huey was at Fortune. Huey says he offered Okrent the job on a limited basis—a one-year tenure during which they would seek a permanent replacement for Kelly. Okrent turned him down. (Because, he says, he didn’t want to disrupt his laid-back writer’s life, which includes five months a year on Cape Cod.) But he did agree to take on a short-term consulting job helping Huey find a new managing editor.

With Okrent as his consigliere, Huey spent the next few months meeting with friends and business executives around the country, hashing out ideas with current and former Time Inc. people like Isaacson, Time political writer Joe Klein, and former Fortune managing editor Eric Pooley. Huey wasn’t discreet about the search, and names leaked to the press: Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, and former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor Tina Brown. The speculation caused anxiety among the Time staff, especially the prospect of Time’s being run by Brown, who, according to a source familiar with the matter, volunteered herself for the job.

Huey says Stengel was always on a private list he kept in his calendar book, but his name didn’t come up in earnest until March 2006, at least three months into the search.

In four conversations—one with Okrent at Le Bernardin—Stengel and Huey formed a connection over their mutual frustration with the pace of change at Kelly’s Time magazine, in particular the failure of Time .com to compete with online news competitors. (Stengel briefly ran Time.com in 1999.) Stengel laid out his case in a seven-page memo titled “The Overarching Question and the Answer”: “Does Time still matter? Is there a place for a weekly newsmagazine in the 21st century?” it asked. “In this teeming media forest, this buzzing, blooming confusion of modern media, there’s a need for a single iconic publication … It’s not unlike what Luce founded in the first place, a kind of news handbook that is a guide for people. Everything else out there is undigested information. Time is knowledge,” Stengel wrote. He then listed the following columns:

Other News Media
Information
Clutter
Opinion
Time
Knowledge
Clarity
Authority



Neither Stengel nor Huey told Kelly that Stengel was in contention for the job, although Kelly heard about it through other channels. When Huey finally told Kelly he had picked someone in April, he said simply, “It’s not an asshole.”

Huey didn’t choose a firebrand; in some ways it would have been easier for Kelly if he had. He had chosen another member of the club, Kelly’s friend and implicit rival. The decision couldn’t help but seem like a personal rebuke, but at the same time it was a relative show of respect for Time’s cultural traditions. After an exhaustive search, Huey had emerged not with a bold outsider with revolutionary ideas but with a reverent Time insider. As Stengel himself says, “I’m radical, but I’m not that radical.”

By the time of Stengel’s hiring, Huey must have realized that “blowing up” Time magazine was going to be tricky. He was finally at the top of one of the great American publishing companies, but he was beset by corporate intrigue and an especially difficult business climate. The entire industry was in a tailspin, and Time Inc.—with 23 percent of industry ad spending—was losing advertising to the Web. Layoffs were becoming a painful annual rite. And Huey’s boss, CEO Ann Moore, was under intense pressure to cut costs.

By all accounts, Huey had an uncomfortable relationship with Moore when he took the job. He was the defender of the old journalistic tradition at Time Inc., and she was known as the “Launch Queen” for creating the softer titles that have fundamentally transformed the identity of the company. A former president of the People-magazine division at Time Inc., Moore oversaw the creation of In Style and Real Simple. Perhaps predictably, she has become unpopular among staffers at the legacy publications like Time and Fortune, who believe she tends to favor her magazines in the corporate turf wars that invariably arise inside Time Inc. Even Huey was given to occasional griping about Moore behind the scenes, according to several people who know him (he denies it), in part to show his allegiance to the hardened reporters of the company. He proudly announced, for instance, that he doesn’t read Time Inc.’s women’s magazines, over which he also presides.


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