The Good Old Boy of Time Inc.

Illustration by Darrow

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.

Time’s readers are fairly evenly divided between genders, but during the past few years, the rest of Time Inc. has morphed into two lobes, one talking to women and the other to men. And the women’s side is carrying the company—especially People, which now accounts for fully 30 percent of Time Inc.’s profits.

Huey is giddy about People’s success. But then he volunteers, unsolicited, a summary of the difference between his two most important magazines. “Time magazine is about everything that matters. People is about things that don’t matter but everybody cares about.”

If I worked at People, I’d be wincing now.

When I ask which of his magazines he’d read if he weren’t at Time Inc., he declines to answer—“there’s no upside for me”—before offering an example anyhow: Sports Illustrated. And then proceeds to dig himself in deeper, saying, “There are several that I wouldn’t read. Hint: I’m not a woman.”

Hello, InStyle; hello, Real Simple: Wincing yet?

He expects to spend 90 percent of his time on the dozen biggest magazines. He doesn’t say he’d just as soon ignore the 139 others, that they’re a herd of cash cows to be milked for the benefit of Time and Fortune. There are the fifties-style crypto-Republican titles (Field & Stream, Progressive Farmer), in which canned chili is a major advertising category; the retro-British ones (Horse & Hound, Motor Caravan); and then, oddly, a few stray hepcats like Wallpaper. Compared to the old Time Inc., the portfolio seems brand-blurringly random, less prime, more Primedia.

“You want me to recite them all? Yesterday it was 152 titles; the day before, it was 155,” Huey says with a smile, seeming to imply: Yeah, it’s goofy, but it is what it is.

Things repeat themselves so often now,” he says, “I can look back at 2000 and say, ‘I’ve seen this before.’ ” He was referring to Internet-mania redux. In fact, at Time Inc., he is in the middle of three Groundhog Day loops. It’s not just nineties déjà vu (print media now really challenged by online), but also eighties (the barbarian Carl Icahn at the gates, determined to break up Time Warner) and seventies (when the launch of People signaled the end of civilization).

During the last moments of the bubble, the company acquired the “New Economy” magazine Business 2.0 for $68 million. “Which, in retrospect,” Huey says, referring to the price, “doesn’t look so smart. But then, what dot-com-era investment in the media business does?” They’ve sunk another $40 million or so into it. His faith does not seem robust. “I think the magazine will probably survive.” (At Business 2.0, they just winced.)

But Huey keeps the New Economy religion—that is, agnosticism—about media platforms. I ask if he has plans for any purely digital launches. “We’re gonna have one very shortly. It isn’t a magazine, it isn’t even journalism. Everyone will say, ‘What would Henry Luce think of this?’”

Everyone said that in 1974 about People, but also two decades earlier when SI was launched, and two decades before that about Life. And when Time invented the newsmagazine, many considered it a debased journalistic mutant. Time Inc.’s evolutionary DNA requires it always to suss out the next great vulgar media form, execute it well, and make it respectable.

About Huey’s imminent vulgar launch online, “Everyone will say, ‘Why is Time Inc. involved?’ Don’t forget, Time Inc. started HBO.” It’s a site being created by former Maxim editor Mark Golin to serve up funny—read: rude, bawdy—short animations and videos to slackery young male office workers. Someone somewhere is wincing.

Under the Huey regime, there will be new paper magazines as well. He says he’s obliged to “find launches that will matter.” During the past two years, the three U.S. launches were Cottage Living, the Wal-Mart women’s magazine All You, and—once more into the breach—Life.

The reanimated Life is distributed as a weekend supplement in 80-odd newspapers—a curious business model to embrace at this moment in media history, a remora attaching itself to an endangered species. “Life is probably the last—if it works—mass play in magazines for a long time.”

Forever, I say.

“Maybe. Probably.”

I ask him, given Life’s splendor when he was young, if it isn’t a bit of a bummer to be presiding over this measly, attenuated thing called Life?

Now he winces. “Do I have to answer that?” It’s depressing, but it is what it is.

Near the end of our breakfast, I ask about the Future of Magazines. “The big question in everyone’s mind [at Time Inc.],” he says, “is how much [of the present struggle] is cyclical and how much is secular.”

A lot is secular—that is, permanent. We would like to believe that Internet-versus-print is analogous to TV-versus-radio in the fifties: The new doesn’t necessarily wipe out the old. But I think paper media today are more like sailing ships around 1860—still dominant but enjoying their last hurrah. I think it’s late in the magazine era. “I hope not,” says Huey. “If I thought they were dead, I’d do something else.” My elegiac turn has made this funny, enthusiastic man a little morose. “And [Time is] something that most people in America want to see survive, even if they don’t know it.”

He’s right about that, of course. Although I had never even broached the possibility of Time’s death.

E-mail: emailandersen@aol.com.

The Good Old Boy of Time Inc.