Time Journalists: Report to the Business Department

Time-Life Building (cc photo: Wally Gobetz)

Buildings like this don’t come cheap. (cc photo: Wally Gobetz)

There are some changes in store at Time magazine. According to a New York Times report (12/30/13), one of the biggest is happening behind the scenes, as parent company Time Warner makes Time Inc. an independent entity. 

As the Times reports, this is happening at a particularly bad time–for Time in particular and for the magazine business in general.  The Times reports that Time seems to think it has a plan:

To combat these negative forces, Time Inc. will abandon the traditional separation between its newsroom and business sides, a move that has caused angst among its journalists. Now, the newsroom staffs at Time Inc.’s magazines will report to the business executives. Such a structure, once verboten at journalistic institutions, is seen as necessary to create revenue opportunities and stem the tide of declining subscription and advertising sales. 

Making journalists answer to the advertising side of the business is a pretty significant departure. But it’s important to understand that certain decisions are made all the time that mostly protect the interests of  either a media outlet’s parent company or a particular advertiser. FAIR’s been collecting these stories every year in our annual Fear & Favor report; in fact, one of the first examples (Extra!, 5/01) concerned Time magazine’s  “Heroes for the Planet” series, which had an exclusive sponsor: Ford Motor Company. As FAIR’s report noted:

Asked about the conflict of interest presumed by having an automobile company sponsor an environmental series, Time‘s international editor admitted to the Wall Street Journal (9/21/98) that, no, the series wasn’t likely to profile environmentalists battling the polluting auto industry. After all, Alexander explained, “we don’t run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes.”

And in one rather famous example, Time ran a cover story about tornadoes the same week the parent company was releasing a movie called Twister, about…. Well, you get the idea. And there are regular features that might give readers pause; the magazine has cover of energy issues that is sponsored by oil giant Shell.

Nonetheless, the company’s CEO, Joseph Ripp, says they will “never, ever, ever, violate our trust with consumers.” And to that end, apparently, the Times reports that Time is bringing back a familiar name:

To mediate any disputes and help the newsroom side maintain its independence, Mr. Ripp recently rehired Norman Pearlstine, Time Inc.’s former editor in chief, to become the company’s chief content officer, essentially acting as a corporate referee. 

I’m not sure what a “corporate referee” is, but Pearlstine was editing Time when some of the preceding infractions took place. And more recently, Pearlstine had a very similar-sounding job at Bloomberg. According to his Bloomberg Businessweek  bio, he was “Chief Content Officer,” which involved:

In this role Pearlstine is charged with seeking growth opportunities for Bloomberg‘s television, radio, magazine and online products and to make the most of the company’s existing news operations.

If his new job is set up anything like that job, then it sounds more like Pearlstine’s role won’t be to prevent journalistic conflicts of interest–but to create more of them. 

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.