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Norm Pearlstine: Editors Need to Be Marketers

He's OK with native advertising, too

Norm Pearlstine’s return to Time Inc. as chief content officer and the accompanying move to have editors report to the business side has raised concerns in journalistic circles that editors will no longer be safe from financial pressures. Pearlstine said today he had “no fear” of Time Inc.’s brands being undermined but that editors today need to think of themselves as marketers.

Pearlstine made his comments during a wide-ranging conversation with the Pulitzer-winning journalist Alex Jones at Bryant Park Grill today. He’s in the unusual position of having served as Time Inc.’s editor in chief before, when it was an almost holy position at the company. But Pearlstine said the position, which was eliminated with his return, discouraged editors from thinking about their customers as they should be, calling the miter that was traditionally passed down from one Time Inc. eic to the next “more of a yoke than a miter.”

“The idea that the editor thinks of himself or herself as a marketer is so obvious to me,” he said.

The discussion moved to another hot topic, native advertising, which publishers are chasing as a way to prop up their digital ad rates. Editorial purists worry that such forms of branded content that mimic editorial risk confusing readers and undermining their trust in the publication.

Pearlstine said that he wasn’t troubled by native advertising, comparing them, as others have, to the advertorials that magazines have run forever. Readers will tell you immediately if you’ve crossed the line, but if labeled properly, he said, native is “natural, not an anathema.”

As it often does when native advertising is the topic, the conversation turned to Forbes, which has been one of the more aggressive users of the format. Forbes’ BrandVoice ads aren’t explicitly labeled as sponsored or advertising content, a distinction that some have criticized. With Forbes CEO Mike Perlis in the audience a few tables away, Pearlstine said that “some parts of [Forbes’ model] I wouldn’t be comfortable with,” adding that “I do see labeling as critical.”

The Q&A took place as Time Inc. prepares to spin off from Time Warner next year and is challenged to drum up new sources of revenue to fund investments as its core magazine business is shrinking. Pearlstine acknowledged the need to look at possible efficiencies and growth opportunities, but said he that felt Time Inc. could move faster as an independent company. Video and mobile are obvious areas of interest, but Time Inc. also has the opportunity to create new products for its audiences that cut across, say, its women’s brands, he said.

Pearlstine came from the same position at Bloomberg LP, which has been expanding beyond its financial and data roots into the news business. Moving beyond Time Inc., he expressed concern about the news media’s ability to support quality reporting. “We’ve not yet come up with a business model to support the journalism needed for a free society,” he said.

He also was questioned about a recent front-page story by The New York Times alleging Bloomberg censored its China coverage. Pearlstine, who once led The Wall Street Journal’s Asia expansion, said any news outlet that goes to China runs the risk of government censorship. Taking the high ground with his old employer, he said he “take[s]” Bloomberg News editor in chief Matt Winkler “at his word” when he told him that the story in question wasn’t ready for publication. Bloomberg’s business in China—which he estimated at 2,000 to 2,500 terminals, a tiny fraction of the total—wasn’t big enough to put its journalistic integrity at risk anyway, he said. 

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