Why Norman Pearlstine as Chief Content Officer Is a Brilliant Move

There's no need to keep church from state in today's transparent world

I was having lunch with a publisher of an important business magazine, owned by a Time Inc. competitor. He asked me what I thought about Norman Pearlstine returning to Time Inc. as chief content officer. I immediately said it was brilliant. In fact, I think it’s pretty innovative and forward thinking. This particular publisher was quick to remark about the importance of church and state at his magazine and questioned the wisdom of Time Inc.’s decision. But I guess that’s what competitors do; they try to take down the enemy. In this case, I think Time Inc. won.

Before I go any further, I should mention that we do a lot of business with Time Inc. properties. In fact, we do a lot of business with a lot of publishers. We don’t really care how they run their businesses, as long as it benefits our clients. But I love seeing innovation coming out of the publishing business, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing in this move.

Now I get the whole church vs. state argument, although over the last 25 years I’ve seen lots of holes and windows poked in those supposedly impenetrable fortresses. In fact, I’ve taken pleasure in poking a few holes myself, just because I was told they’re sacred. My earliest hole-poking experience was while working on a fashion brand with a pretty hefty print budget. When we met with the magazine’s business side, we were always armed with a report that listed all the editorial credits we were given. Those titles that gave us more credits often got more business. In fact, the publishers would always kick off the meeting with a tagged issue highlighting all the editorial credits.

When I moved onto this account, I was surprised by this approach. But my media director explained to me that if they thought their audience was right for advertising, then their audience should be right for edit. That made sense to me. But to be honest, having grown up in the church vs. state world, it made me a little uncomfortable. I felt like we were buying edit. I quickly learned that’s often how it worked in the world of fashion and beauty.

Back then, there were no real-time marketplace checks and balances. It was before the Internet and real-time feedback. Business wasn’t as transparent because business didn’t move as quickly as it did today. Back then, walls between the edit and business sides were important because there were limited mechanisms to ensure integrity and objectivity—the supposed hallmark of many news outlets. But we’ve now moved to a real-time feedback loop.

Today if there’s an inaccuracy or even a concern around journalistic integrity, the twittersphere will call bullshit. When a New Yorker journalist was caught fabricating Bob Dylan lyrics in a book he’d written, he resigned. Real-time fact checking even affected the brilliant and well-respected Fareed Zakaria.

I would argue that there’s no need to keep the church from the state because today’s real-time, highly competitive news world will keep the media honest, at least the media that claim that integrity and objectivity matter. An outlet like Fox News, which doesn’t claim to be objective, doesn’t have this problem. No one questions their objectivity because we all know they’re biased and we expect them to have a strong POV. But I expect Time, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to have much higher standards.

I believe that in today’s media world, once a media company stakes out the high ground, the rest of the world will hold them to it. We don’t need to worry about ad sales compromising their integrity. But we do need ad sales to help monetize the content across all platforms and partners, including advertising partners.

The most effective and productive meetings I’ve had with media companies around developing large-scale strategic content partnerships are when editorial and sales work together alongside the advertisers. I say bravo to Time Inc. for realizing this and bringing back Norman Pearlstine to lead the charge. As Time Inc. readies itself for an IPO next year, I think these kinds of moves should assure Wall Street that they know how a modern media company needs to behave in a digital world where we’re all content producers and distributors. 

Barry Lowenthal is president of The Media Kitchen.