The media world is still a ways away from getting to the bottom of what was really behind the abrupt firing of Time Inc. chairman and CEO Jack Griffin, but considering how short Griffin’s tenure was, and the way his exit leaves Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes exposed, this much must be true: There’s probably more to the story than the official company line that Griffin was fired after a mere six months on the job because his leadership style didn’t “mesh” with Time Inc.
After a night and morning in which the anti-Griffin forces dominated the narrative, those loyal to the fired executive have started telling their side of the story. One bit of chatter that’s coming from the pro-Griffin side fingers Time Inc. editor in chief John Huey as a factor in Griffin’s firing. One executive said that the trouble really started with Griffin wanting to push for change too fast (Griffin relied on outside consultants, reorganized the magazine groups, moved around several key executives and eliminated others).
“This is a cabal that started a whisper campaign, and it got to [Time Warner CEO Jeff] Bewkes,” the source said. “It was a small number of people who felt extremely threatened because Jack wanted to change things.”
Griffin himself added to the conversation with a statement he released today, the day after his firing. In it, he defended his tenure, saying he was hired to transform the business and that he was consistently praised by senior management before he left. “My exit was clearly not about management style or results,” Griffin said.
One change Griffin made that would have affected Huey was his decision that all of Time Inc.’s magazines run mastheads, which would seem to undermine Huey’s authority. (Huey is now part of an interim committee that was appointed to run the company until Griffin’s successor is named. We asked Huey for comment; he hasn’t responded yet.)
Other insiders dispute that theory. “He didn’t give a shit about that,” one person said. The masthead edict was said to have been widely unpopular, and, the source said, “Most of our advertisers won’t want to run opposite a masthead.”
While it isn’t clear if a single incident led to Griffin’s firing, the line from Time Inc. is that Griffin’s personality was at extreme odds with the company’s culture. At Meredith Corp., where he led the magazine division that included heartland pubs like Ladies’ Home Journal and Family Circle, he was described as “brilliant” but shy and socially awkward. “He’s very unimpressed with the big swinging dick culture of Time Inc.,” said one magazine exec who used to work for Griffin. “He’s very unimpressed by self-aggrandizing people.”
As The New York Times reported, Griffin, a Roman Catholic, made people at Time Inc. uneasy by making mentions of the faith, and one source said that at Meredith, Griffin was just one of a “Catholic cabal” of higher ups who made regular references to being Catholic. “Instead of saying, ‘Go sit down in your seat,’ it would be, ‘Everyone go in your pew,’” this person said. The emphasis that anti-Griffin people are putting on Griffin’s Catholicism in explaining the firing is itself curious—it’s unusual, to say the least, for a major company to make someone’s expression of his religious views or orientation an issue, especially in public like this.
It may not be hard to see how such quirks, combined with a desire to push for sweeping change, would have a hard time winning acceptance at the much larger Time Inc. “Ninety percent of the senior executive talent was extraordinarily unhappy,” claimed one exec there. “He just didn’t care what anybody else thought.” And yet, as other observers note, it’s highly unusual to fire a top exec without cause after only six months, and virtually unheard of at Time Warner. Indeed, if executives were judged on social skills alone, the American economy would be in obvious trouble.
Bewkes had an incentive to move swiftly in Griffin’s case. This is the third time he’s fired an executive he himself put in place. In 2009, it was AOL CEO Randy Falco and president Ron Grant, whom he replaced with Tim Armstrong. At the time, Bewkes was criticized for not moving fast enough.
Related: Time Inc. Jettisons Jack Griffin