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.
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.”