Within days of Jack Griffin being fired as CEO of Time Inc., his name disappeared from its corporate Web site. The name that now sits atop the organizational chart is John Huey, the company’s editorial boss.
That topmost position may just be symbolic, but it speaks volumes about the power Huey has wielded at Time Inc. since he rose to become its sixth editor in chief in 2006. It’s rare for magazine companies, as opposed to magazine titles, to have editors in chief and rarer still for there to be one with Huey’s influence and independence. And now, he’s effectively running Time Inc.: Huey, along with Chief Financial Officer Howard Averill and General Counsel Maurice Edelson—glaringly, there is no representative from the advertising side—sits on an interim committee that is overseeing the company until a new CEO is named.
The official line from Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes is that the company cut short Griffin’s tenure, which ended after only six months, because his leadership style didn’t “mesh” with the company. The company claims the discontent was widespread and that top executives were threatening to leave, forcing Bewkes to act swiftly. But at the same time, plenty of other higher-ups at the company have expressed support for Griffin and had no inkling that his firing was imminent.
There are no reports of blowups between Huey and Griffin during Griffin’s brief reign, and Huey’s reps dismiss the idea that he was anything but positive toward his new boss. Indeed, other executives recount a series of business-as-usual meetings in the weeks leading up to Griffin’s ouster. What’s more, Griffin vowed to invest in Time magazine, one of the titles closest to Huey’s heart, and make it the most powerful news franchise out there. But Griffin, an outsider armed with a mandate to bring about change, also threatened to rattle the status quo that Huey and his fellow committee members thrived under. (Neither Huey nor Griffin would comment for this story.)
Much of the chatter where Huey is concerned has focused on Griffin’s order that all Time Inc. magazines run mastheads, a decision usually left up to the editors. But Huey, who has a reputation for acting autonomously and alienating business-side executives, may have had other reasons to be wary. According to knowledgeable sources, his contract is due to expire in a year. In December, longtime Time Inc. editor Martha Nelson was promoted to editorial director, No. 2 behind Huey, a move that some press reports suggested could be seen as setting the stage for her to eventually succeed the 62-year-old Huey. (The press accounts said it was Griffin who made the announcement, although Huey reps forcefully disputed those reports, pointing to an internal memo announcing the promotion from Huey himself.) That Griffin came from a women’s magazine company that doesn’t share Time Inc.’s strong editor in chief or heavyweight journalistic traditions could have sown the seeds for a potential culture clash; under Griffin, Meredith did away with its top editor position.
But it was general counsel Edelson, not Huey, who, according to the New York Post and confirmed by Adweek sources, complained to Griffin that he, Huey and Averill weren’t invited along with the top rainmakers at the company to a March meeting to brainstorm new revenue ideas. Averill and Edelson had been sitting pretty under Griffin’s predecessor, Ann Moore. When she grouped the company’s U.S. magazines into three units in 2008, she gave Averill reporting oversight for the general managers of each group in what she called a “significant feature” of the restructuring. Moore promoted Edelson to executive vice president and made him a strategist; now, he’s listed as executive vice president and general counsel. But Griffin didn’t think that as nonrevenue producers, the trio’s attendance was required. As he spelled out in an e-mail sent to the invitees, “The objective of our off-site on March 10/11 is to gather together the senior executives responsible for driving our primary domestic revenue centers to identify the ways in which we are going to do this.” Averill and Edelson haven’t responded to requests for comment.
While upper-management change is a matter of course under a new CEO, the idea of a revolt by three remaining senior executives might well have spooked Bewkes, who would have reason to want stability at his magazine unit when he spins it off into a separate company, as he’s expected to eventually do. (The consensus is that Time Warner’s ultimate strategy is to focus on its video assets.)
Yet Griffin apparently didn’t see the firing coming. He had been widely praised for his success in running Meredith’s magazines, and in November, Bewkes had called him out during an earnings call to discuss Time Warner’s third-quarter results as “one of the most highly regarded executives in the publishing business.” While Bewkes had taken him aside twice, on Dec. 23 and Jan. 14, Griffin came away thinking the meetings were about reassuring Averill and Edelson and not about widespread discontent.
But things got worse fast for Griffin. Early press reports, largely coming from leaks within Time Warner, described him as making employees uncomfortable by making references to his Roman Catholic faith and pointing to women and minority higher-ups who left during his tenure, some involuntarily. After a wave of negative press about him, Griffin was forced to release a statement a day after his firing in which he defended his brief record at CEO.
It’s not the kind of brass-knuckled spinning usually associated with the highly corporate culture of Time Warner, but the company’s new image maker, Gary Ginsberg, is used to playing hardball. As the PR chief of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., he presided over touchy press wars like the firing of Judith Regan and the battle for Dow Jones & Co. Said a Time Warner rep: “We have been as clear and transparent as can be in explaining Jack’s departure. The rumors out there offering alternate explanations are inaccurate and irresponsible.”
Now, Time Inc. is in the hands of three people who represent stability and familiarity but aren’t revenue generators. Meanwhile, the company, given the internal turmoil—and the de facto reign of John Huey—may have a hard time attracting a new CEO. What’s more, the company has yet to begin to deal with the most obvious fallout of Griffin’s firing: He was popular in the advertising community. Sources said that when a senior executive asked Bewkes how the company should handle advertiser concern, he seemed dismissive. “He said, ‘I don’t understand advertising, and I’ve been trying to avoid it my entire life,’” according to one source.
The Time Warner rep explained that Bewkes was addressing the significance of revenue generation and of each of the business units. “When addressing the importance of the ad market, Jeff made a self-deprecating reference to his 30 years at HBO where advertising isn’t a factor. His joke was made in the context of ‘don’t listen to me, listen to [Chief Revenue Officer] Paul Caine and [Chief Marketing Officer] Stephanie George,’ both of whom were in the meeting and who are in charge of this crucial initiative.” Still, that’s not a good sign at a time when Time Inc.’s magazine business is sorely in need of leadership, with its print revenue lagging expectations and a bigger competitor on the horizon with Hearst scooping up Hachette Filipacchi Media.
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