Commentary

An Open Letter To Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp

Dear Joe:

I would like to tell you about the Republic of Nauru.

Nauru is a tiny island in Micronesia, an 8-square-mile speck in the South Pacific with a population just slightly over 9000. For most of the period since World War II, it had the highest per capita income in the world -- which was especially notable since almost none of the 9000 capitas were employed. Rather, Nauru was a perfect welfare state, providing for all the populace's needs with export revenue from a single economic sector: mining.

The actual running of the heavy equipment was handled by migrant Fijians, while the natives mainly drove around the island's perimeter road in Jeeps, drank beer and listened to the republic's one radio station.

Every month, they got a check from the government so they could gas up and fill the cooler. Nauruians were blessed that God had bestowed upon them a valuable natural resource. That resource was seagull shit.

Yes, it was a guano island, which over the eons had yielded a crust of mineralized phosphates highly prized for fertilizer and other basic chemical products. It was just a question of scraping off the surface, loading the stuff on freighters and fattening the national treasury.

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So, Joe, hold that thought.

We noticed you have brought back the venerable Norman Pearlstine, erstwhile editor in chief, in the role of Chief Content Officer. According to your memo to your staff, his charge will be to forge “a strong partnership between business and editorial.”

Uh oh. Joe, are you not aware that Time Inc.’s legacy, and till now Pearlstine’s, has been to maintain an impervious firewall separating business and editorial so as not to corrupt the latter with the former? Well, of course you are -- or you would have seen no need to rationalize this obvious cultural and ethical retreat by alluding to the existential crisis that afflicts you and the rest of journalism:

“We believe effective collaboration across business and editorial lines is imperative if we are to succeed as an independent company.”

In other words, ad and circulation revenue are falling precipitously, and we have to raise some money somehow. Thus, in addition to bringing in a “content officer” who will no doubt turn a century of tradition on its head by accepting advertiser-supplied or advertiser-commissioned text, the lines of authority have been changed to have magazine editors reporting to division presidents.

“Collaboration” indeed. That’s what quislings get strung up for.

A Time Inc. spokesperson tried to persuade Ad Age that the company’s vaunted editorial independence is not in jeopardy: "Our editors will have full responsibility for their own content. Nothing there changes. “

Translation: everything changes. Editors, by virtue of their new bosses, will be obliged to show new revenue, which is a path to perdition.

Look, Joe, let me tell you your future. I don’t even need to look at your palm. In the first year or so, you will embrace “exciting partnerships” with advertisers that bring in various forms of “native advertising” revenues and it’ll be high fives all around. But at what cost? Your circulation is dropping because your weeklies, in a 24/7 news cycle and a glutted worldwide Web, are already losing relevance.

What they have held on to until now is their prestige, their trust, their good names. All of which you are getting ready to barter for quick cash. Your appeal to advertisers as a “content” platform is directly proportional to your prestige. Yet with each such transaction, you carve into that resource…until it is all used up.

Let me tell you about Nauru, Joe. It’s been mined to the nub. Per capita income is now $200 per month. Unemployment is 90%. The phosphates are all gone.

22 comments about "An Open Letter To Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp".
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  1. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 4, 2013 at 9:25 a.m.

    The entire notion of journalistic integrity flies right out the window when a parent has to explain the downside of the 4-hour erection mentioned in the commercial CBS is more than happy to run in its national news. On that note, considering that newspapers only share their territory with unsavory advertisers, vs. TV's eager willingness to turn over an entire network for 30 - 60 seconds at a shot to virtually anyone, puts television clearly atop the field in this tallest midget debate.

  2. William Hodges from Tiny Circle LLC, November 4, 2013 at 11:11 a.m.

    Journalism in general has been in a death spiral since news became "content". This advance is neither shocking nor new, but instead a steady decline toward newstainment.

  3. Robert Rosenthal from Rosenthal Heavy Industries, November 4, 2013 at 11:42 a.m.

    I agree. But how would you propose dealing with "ad and circulation revenue (that) are falling precipitously?" That trajectory also concludes with "the phosphates are all gone."

  4. Kaya Hund from Consultant, November 4, 2013 at 12:02 p.m.

    "Nothing there changes." Is this the same as: "Let me be clear"?

  5. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, November 4, 2013 at 2:01 p.m.

    Maybe Time needs to buy seagulls from Nauru. They could then use the dropping for new ink in the magazines....lol

    Seriously Time Inc. all but stopped publishing sweepstakes with my company. They couldn't afford a couple of cents a click which is what it came out to with very big prize sweeps. In short, Time Inc. has given up on digital before then really got started.

  6. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing, November 4, 2013 at 3:22 p.m.

    Bob...What is in real jeopardy Bob is the future of the Time Inc Magazine organization. You seem to gloss over the fact that circulation is declining and ad revenues are down. These are the two primary lifelines for a publishing company. I have written much in the last couple of months about what Joe Ripp and Time Inc should do in terms of transforming the company into the leading digital publishing organization. All of that seems to have fell on deaf ears. There has been a fundamental shift in consumer media consumption patterns...PRINT is NOT coming back..despite what all of the romantics would like us to think. As for content marketing...it doesn't have to mean that editorial sells it's soul to the devil...It means that Time inc needs to do special interest publishing for clients...That doesn't "always" mean that we sell out the editorial quality franchise. I would think that guys like Joe Ripp would know that consumers see thru stuff like this and the result backfires. What Time Inc needs to do now to regain it's financial footing is think digital first...bring in salespeople who think that way and meet with their customers to get their ideas on the intersections between content and consumers that are most relevant to their marketing messages. With that information they can produce a wide range of new editorially driven products that engage new audiences in the digital world...and create more receptive advertising environments.

  7. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, November 4, 2013 at 3:53 p.m.

    Al,
    Print is in trouble, Al? Really? I wasn't aware.

    Look, there may or may not be business models out there to save print (and digital) media from The Chaos Scenario. Me, I'm pessimistic. But if the cost of saving independent journalism is to sacrifice its independence, that's not just Nauruian economics, it's a Faustian bargain.

  8. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing, November 4, 2013 at 4:03 p.m.

    Bob...No disrespect...but I gotta believe that if Media Post had not figured out a way to sell advertising adjacencies in and around your column...in the multiple venues that carry your column..you column and your desire for a model that would save "independent journalism" would be headed for the scrap heap. There is a model that preserves independent journalism and provides publishers the ability to sell advertising in an environment that is truly engaging to readers. We need better salespeople on all sides of this opportunity. Somewhere along the way..we have lost our ability to sell the value of an engaged audience ie..the intersection between content & consumer. I have been there and done that...Look me up...In our zeal for "programmatic" everything...we have lost the ability to sell the relationship and integrity of the intersection between content and reader to the advertising world. Maybe Joe needs to hire folks that understand how to rebuild those sort of chops again.

  9. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 4, 2013 at 4:14 p.m.

    Bob, Why would/should any advertiser pay more to "reach" the exact same person on Time.com that he can buy for 10 cents per thousand on Facebook? Nobody pays attention to the ad space on either anyway, so why overspend on something nobody wants, its fancy pedigree notwithstanding? At least the good people of Nauru knew the difference between shit and shinola.

  10. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing, November 4, 2013 at 4:17 p.m.

    Hey Mike..what makes you think that anyone is "reaching" anyone on FB..It's not about "reach" Advertisers want to engage readers...That gets done in an environments that engage readers in a relevant way...We all need to become direct marketers...ROI focus...All the reach in the world isn't worth anything unless it moves the needle...Relevant content engages...and moves people in a cost effective & efficient manner...Been there..done that..

  11. Kenneth Fadner from MediaPost, November 4, 2013 at 4:33 p.m.

    "Bob...No disrespect...but I gotta believe that if Media Post had not figured out a way to sell advertising adjacencies in and around your column...in the multiple venues that carry your column..you column and your desire for a model that would save 'independent journalism' would be headed for the scrap heap."

    Won't happen.
    -Ken Fadner
    Chairman and Publisher
    MediaPost

  12. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 4, 2013 at 4:45 p.m.

    Al, That's why I put "reach" in quotes -- because I don't think they actually reach anyone through the ad space, let alone engage anyone -- which was my point all along. It's mass marketing without the masses.

  13. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing, November 4, 2013 at 4:52 p.m.

    Ken...Media Post is merchandising ad inventory in and around your news columns and columnists..Last time I checked...you run top and bottom banner ads along with showcase units above and below...Bob's column in all of the different newsletters that he is being carried. You would have to agree that since your publishing revenue stream is not built on paid circ...your primary revenue stream is advertising..
    Without that...your P&L takes a hit. I am not and have never been in favor of cheapening or discrediting the editorial integrity of a publication..however Not ALL content marketing/special interest publishing is selling out editorial integrity...This is too long of a conversation for a comment box. Suffice to say..advertisers want more engaging content that is relevant to their target customers...You can provide that...Publishers need to hire edit people that understand that reader engagement is a moving target and that their content is only valuable when it TRULY engages with a core audience. In the print world that engagement was a debatable point. Within the digital arena with real time analytics we can determine the level of engagement any piece of content is truly recieving...That's the point. Create more engaging content and hire salespeople who can sell the power of it..and that's the winning formula.

  14. Kenneth Fadner from MediaPost, November 4, 2013 at 4:58 p.m.

    Al-
    I have no idea what you are advocating in your comment. Selling to advertisers "stories" that look deceptively like editorial content but are actually ads ... or simply running ads in obvious ad positions around engaging editorial content. If the latter, that is what we try to do every day. If the former, we won't do it.

  15. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing, November 4, 2013 at 5:03 p.m.

    Mike...Time Inc pubs, Media Post...they can show engagement...within the digital arena..Open rates on their newsletters, click rates on their content, time spent within the digital pubs..clicks on ad units within their pages..ROI tracking for their customers...etc.ALL of those metrics together can provide a sense of engagement..IF they use the data and sell that way...I hope that they are "selling" that way...The programmatic way of thinking has got the entire marketing world consumed with "reach"...not engagement...We need to return to a world where engagement is important and environment matters. It will only matter when we use the data to demonstrate the quality edit/content engages the reader in a more meaningful way.

  16. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing, November 4, 2013 at 5:06 p.m.

    Ken...Do you believe that what Joe Ripp is doing and/or what Bob is asserting is that Time Inc is going to start "selling stories"...? What evidence do you have that this is their intent..?
    What I am explaining is the need to reestablish content that is meaningful to both the reader and the advertiser...in venues that make sense for both...in order for Time Inc...and other publishing houses to be viable in the new world.

  17. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 4, 2013 at 5:21 p.m.

    Kenneth, I completely agree with your noble albeit quixotic editorial stance, but the legacy ad model you look to for support simply can't perform in an on-demand world where everyone is equipped and inclined to avoid the ads. The sober reality is no one outside our industry wants the ads anymore now than then did twenty years ago when we transported this myopic foolishness to the Internet. Marshall McLuhan was right: any system pushed to its extreme will begin to operate in reverse.

  18. Doc Searls from ProjectVRM, November 4, 2013 at 5:31 p.m.

    Great piece, Bob. As a journalist I write editorial, not "content." In the immortal words of John Perry Barlow, "I didn't start hearing about 'content' until the container business felt threatened." That was a decade or more ago.

  19. Kenneth Fadner from MediaPost, November 4, 2013 at 6:08 p.m.

    Mike, so Internet ads don't work. What kind do?

  20. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 4, 2013 at 6:18 p.m.

    Kenneth, contact me offlist and I'll be happy to discuss it with you.

  21. Kenneth Fadner from MediaPost, November 4, 2013 at 6:20 p.m.

    Mike, thanks for not using our comments to bang your drum.

  22. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 4, 2013 at 6:54 p.m.

    You're welcome, Kenneth. Hope to hear from you soon.

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