Pretty much every important media story these days is, one way or another, about the struggle to cope with the end of the fat and happy twentieth-century era of media monopolies and oligopolies, of balancing the imperatives of new technology and the free market against intangible cultural values, whether and how to give people all the candy they want or the meat and vegetables they need. And because the bosses of big media got into the game just before the good old days ended, the smartest of them, even the constitutionally cheerful ones, seem slightly . . . fretful, if not dispirited.
Like John Huey. On the first of the year, he became editorial boss of all the magazines (except—“sadly,” he says—Mad) that Time Warner owns. The very name of his division, Time Inc., with its 151 titles, is vestigial and nostalgic, like the façade of an old building behind which a generic modern high-rise has been built.
Huey was never Most Likely to Succeed. He’d had a decent newspaper career, but by age 45 he was just a mid-level editor at Fortune. Then in 1995, his luck changed: His old Wall Street Journal boss, Norman Pearlstine, became Time Inc.’s editor-in-chief, and the Internet boom began. Pearlstine promoted Huey to Fortune’s editorship at the perfect moment, and he took full advantage, making it newsier, tougher, sexier, funnier, excellent. And his timing on the other end—he left to become Pearlstine’s No. 2 just as the go-go era ended—couldn’t have been better either.
He’s only the sixth editor-in-chief, which adds to the papal luster of the job. Like all the previous ones (I worked under two of them), Huey is intelligent and reeks of self-esteem. But he’s also ebullient and impolitic in an authentic, smart-ass, regular-guy way. He’s fun.
He grew up in Atlanta and still lives in the South, sort of, commuting each weekend to Charleston. “I’m a media guy”—pronounced gaah—“but I really like having a life away from it. Where nobody cares about . . . this.” We’re at Michael’s.
I ask if living in South Carolina affects his editorial sensibility. “Absolutely. At Time Inc. in discussions I frequently describe myself as ‘the American.’ ”
Yeah, sure, he’s just a provincial bumpkin, “not cerebral enough or thoughtful enough” to figure out magazines by himself. It is a familiar, self-deprecatory style.
And cunning. For instance, when he tells me that in his new office he’s arranged all the books by people he knows for maximum visibility in order to please them—“Yours is there”—he is apparently saying, I’m a Potemkin intellectual and craven flatterer. But the effect—confessing his sin and suggesting that one is worthy enough to flatter—is very effective flattery.
He is the first baby-boomer to hold the job, so I try (and fail) to get him to tell me, after his third cup of coffee, what drugs he’s taken. When I mention Henry Luce’s own experiments with LSD in order to suggest that he wouldn’t be the first psychedelic editor-in-chief, he says he wouldn’t even be the second. “Norm has said that the only thing he and Luce shared was that they both dropped acid. He’s very proud of it.”
Proud, maybe, but I wonder if he’s just made Pearlstine wince. This strong tendency to candor and humor is why people who like Huey like him, and why people who don’t, don’t. In the middle of an anodyne chief-executive rap about the challenge of attracting “first-class talent,” and the “gravitas” of magazines, he digresses into an account of his conversation with Andrea Wong, ABC’s young head of reality series. Her degrees from MIT and Stanford Business School notwithstanding, she gushed about her enormous pride in Extreme Makeover, Huey tells me. His eyebrows arch incredulously.
A couple of years ago, when a reporter asked how he felt about pissing off Time Inc. lifers by bringing in outsiders to run magazines, his reply was shockingly frank: “Perfect attendance isn’t always rewarded.”
But hiring is not top of mind. Time Inc. just fired 105 management staff, and another round of layoffs is imminent. The company is extremely profitable—more than a billion dollars a year on revenues of $5.6 billion—but that interests Huey only to the extent it lets him employ better journalists to do journalism of consequence. “Some magazines have importance beyond profitability. We do have a public trust. Time is not the most profitable”—not by a long shot—“but it’s the most important. If it weren’t part of the portfolio, I wouldn’t be half as interested in the job.”
Did he just make all his other editorial staffs wince? But it’s a plain fact that only a handful of Time Inc. magazines produce real “public trust” journalism. And the least-trivial ones are hurting most: During 2005, Fortune’s and Time’s ad pages were down 10 and 12.2 percent, respectively—which for Time means a downtick of $56 million.