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Norman Pearlstine to Samir Husni: There Has Never Been A More Exciting Time To Be In Journalism. The Mr. Magazine™ Exclusive Interview With Norman Pearlstine, Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer, Time Inc.

March 23, 2015

When Norman Pearlstine Talks, Editors And Publishers Listen.

“We may change the (publishing) model in different ways; we may become more sophisticated about printing and delivering content by zip code or by ways in which our readers define themselves, but I think that there’s still a robust market for print having had such a long tradition of creating content.” Norman Pearlstine

“I do believe there will continue to be an audience for a printed product who will be willing to pay for that delivery system.” Norman Pearlstine

“Having to figure out how to make a story a compelling one, but where a desire for fairness really forces you to understand what people do; why they do it, and to really seek out that kind of balance, I think doesn’t come automatically. And that’s one of the things that I always worry about.” Norman Pearlstine

Sometimes practicality and greatness go hand in hand. Toss in almost 50 years of experience and you have a recipe for editorial distinction that can’t be argued or compared. So, when Norman Pearlstine talks, editors and publishers listen.

Norman Pearlstine is the executive vice president and chief content officer for Time Inc. He is a man who has worked at some of the most prestigious and stalwart publishing and financial venues that have ever existed. From The Wall Street Journal to Bloomberg, Norman has been in the business of magazines and newspapers for a long time and has seen the changes that technology has brought to the forefront, and also, how those changes have affected publishing overall. And while the years of experience he has in the industry may have molded his acumen to perfection, his mind is open to 21st century innovation and the excitement of the future.

Recently I spoke with Norman and heard the down-to-earth rationale of a man who knew how to hold the editorial reins of a company like Time Inc., I listened to each and every word he said. His spot-on answers were tight and succinct and his goal clear: keeping Time Inc. engaged with its audience and propelling it forward into a technological position of strength and vitality.

I hope you enjoy this inspiring and exclusive 40-minute-conversation with the “Dean” of editors; a man who knows more about the business than most have forgotten; the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Norman Pearlstine.

But first the sound-bites:

Norm-Pearlstine18198RETOn how he believes the role of editor has changed over the years: First, I think that we have to acknowledge the changes that technology has imposed on us. From Gutenberg until this century, we had a one-to-many model, as everyone has written endlessly, and now we have a model in which increasingly, it’s an interactive one where producers of content and recipients of content engage in a conversation, often digital or video.

On whether having more than 392 million in gross audience across all of Time’s platforms puts enough pressure on him to keep him awake at night: In terms of the business of media, and as we as a company that was just spun off from Time Warner last June feel this; the economic pressure on revenues from print is great and is likely to continue. At the same time, I think it’s never been a more exciting time to be in journalism as we try to sort out all of these new technologies and new ways of interacting with our customers.

On whether he believes a journalist could start a magazine in the 21st century the way Luce and Hadden did, as opposed to a businessperson: I think there are probably three categories, if you will: there are journalists; there are managers or executives, and there are also the technologists. And we should not ignore the people who can introduce a technology without necessarily understanding the implications of it for information or content. I do think that it is certainly possible for a journalist to begin an enterprise today, and in some cases, it’s never been easier because you don’t need a lot of capital to start a blog or something like that.

On the major stumbling block that he’s had to face over the years: I’ve come to appreciate over the years that our best stories have heroes and villains, but more often than not, the situation is more gray than black or white. Having to figure out how to make a story a compelling one, but where a desire for fairness really forces you to understand what people do; why they do it, and to really seek out that kind of balance, I think doesn’t come automatically. And that’s one of the things that I always worry about.

On whether he can ever envision a period where Time Inc. would have no print publications: I believe print will continue to be an important part of Time Inc. for the foreseeable future. Never is a long time. I do think that it is very possible that advertising support for print will continue to be under pressure, but I do believe there will continue to be an audience for a printed product who will be willing to pay for that delivery system.

On why he believes print media reporters are determined to write the industry’s demise, despite the reality: I think the media has always been obsessed with covering itself; it’s a fact that’s not all that new. If you close a news bureau, it’s likely to get much more attention than say, layoffs in the auto industry would. And that’s kind of natural, that on one hand we’re serving an audience, trying to give a worldview, and on the other hand, what happens to us becomes newsworthy and we have that platform.

On creativity and innovation across the platforms: One thing I will say; I believe mobile has come farther and faster and is more significant than certainly any of us thought, say, around 2007 or 2008, when we were thinking about the future of our business. To me, mobile is going to be increasingly a video experience.

On whether he believes we’ll find an audience that’s willing to pay for digital: I think that there will be people who have desires for specialized information they’ll pay for. That B to B may actually have a renaissance for a period on smart phones. I care about college football and I want to know about the May 1st Declaration Day, when every high school athlete in the country makes a decision about where they’re going to school; a service that would shoot me emails on that would probably be something I’d pay for.

On what keeps his momentum up and what keeps him in a positive state of mind: As a chief content officer, I am just exhilarated by the speed with which this business is changing, by the challenges we have, and by the uncertainties, but by an absolute belief that we will continue to create great products that tell stories that address the needs of passionate audiences.

On what keeps him up at night: Just emails from Jill (Jill S. Davison, VP, Corporate Communications) telling me that I have an interview with Samir at noon and I better be prepared for it. (Laughs)

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Norman Pearlstine, Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer, Time Inc.

Samir Husni: You’ve been in the business of journalism and editing for almost 50 years, from The Philadelphia Inquirer to The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal to Time Inc.; how do you think the role of editor has changed over the years?
Norman Pearlstine: First, I think that we have to acknowledge the changes that technology has imposed on us. And I do show my age that when I was a copyboy at The New York Times, I nearly caused a walkout in the pressroom above the newsroom when I touched a piece of hot type and a linotypist informed me that only linotypists were allowed to touch hot type. That was in 1967.

As late as 1985, when I was managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, we were still using Royal manual typewriters, ten-ply carbon paper and sending stories by six-level teletype to Chicopee, Massachusetts. And you realize that Netscape went public in 1994, Google was founded in 1998, Twitter and Facebook are only a decade old and the Apple introduction of the tablet was in 2010, only five years ago. As an editor, I think you first have to confront the ways that these technological changes have affected journalism and in some respects very beneficially, in terms of ability to quickly research a story, to get information; if I want to know your address and phone number, I don’t have to spend half a day researching that, so it’s a great time to be a reporter in terms of access to information.

At the same time, from Gutenberg until this century, we had a one-to-many model, as everyone has written endlessly, and now we have a model in which increasingly, it’s an interactive one where producers of content and recipients of content engage in a conversation, often digital or video.

Samir Husni: And does that change the role of the editor? At one stage of your career, I remember reading that 16 of the top magazine editors in the country worked for you at one time or another.

Norman Pearlstine: There was a time, and I think that Jim Friedlich said that once in an introduction to a speech I gave, in 2012 when that was probably correct. First of all, we’re still doing great long-form journalism that requires all the skill sets that we’ve always wanted to have from our editors.

And that hasn’t changed. Nancy Gibbs (managing editor, TIME magazine) does a cover on the threat of ISIS and works with David Von Drehle, who writes the piece, and that process is very similar to the kind of work that Time has been doing for decades. The big difference is that sitting 30 feet away from her desk is Edward Felsenthal (managing editor time.com) with the Time.com staff and next to him is Callie Schweitzer, who’s in charge of social audience development and social media, trying to make sure that we are getting our content to as many people as possible and in as many forms as possible. When we do a cover story like, say the year-end Person of the Year on the Ebola Fighters, the editor also has to think about what the digital package will be, the video presentation, and how are we going to get as much audience for this as possible.

The editor’s job now involves not only all of the skill sets that were once important, but then this whole new set of ways of interacting with audience. And I’d say probably along with that come pain points; we all want to generate content from users that enriches experience for other consumers of information, but at the same time you have to have some kind of a correcting mechanism for things that don’t work and that puts a lot of pressure on people.

Samir Husni: Speaking of pressure; Time Inc. is the largest magazine company worldwide and now you have the largest gross audience. You have more than 392 million in gross audience across all the platforms. Does this put more pressure on you and keep you awake at night?

Screen shot 2015-03-22 at 11.57.09 PM Norman Pearlstine: In terms of the business of media, and as we as a company that was just spun off from Time Warner last June feel this; the economic pressure on revenues from print is great and is likely to continue. And those of us who are now stewards of the brands of Time Inc., begin with this recognition, that while we finished 2014 with 23 magazines producing 33 million print subscriptions and those 23 totals were all profitable; we know that if we don’t move quickly to become multiplatform and multimedia, we’ll be in real trouble. So, the headwinds and the pressures on the core business are there and we just have to acknowledge that.

At the same time, I think it’s never been a more exciting time to be in journalism as we try to sort out all of these new technologies and new ways of interacting with our customers.

Samir Husni: Do you have any fears from the new technologies, from the internet for example? Joe Ripp (CEO of Time Inc.) told me in an interview that the internet can be a force for good as much as a force for evil. What is your fear from the internet or digital?
Norman Pearlstine: With anything as new as the digital age or the internet, there’s a fear of the unknown and there are certainly examples that cause concern, whether it’s the anonymity that allows for bullying on some sites to aggregating content from sources that are unreliable and incorrect. We just have to remind ourselves these are early days.

When I left The Wall Street Journal in 1992 there was no browser, no real search that allowed for personalization. So, when you think about a relatively short period of time, there are certainly concerns and risks that come with embracing a lot of these new technologies.

I do think that one of the things shown is the way in which community corrects itself. Wikipedia, when it first came out, everybody said it would never be as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica, and you wouldn’t be able to trust anything in it, and while it’s certainly not foolproof or flawless, but to a remarkable degree the community of people who care about that content corrects things pretty quickly. If anything, if you make a mistake today, you’re much more likely to be found out and exposed.

It’s a balancing act. There’s no doubt that there are areas of risk and danger when you think about the global internet. You think about the sophisticated videos that are being produced by ISIS as a recruiting tool; this is something that society has to learn to deal with. I don’t want to paint a picture that is just all optimism, but I am optimistic that society will figure out ways to correct these abuses.

Samir Husni: At the turn of the 20th century, we had people like Henry Luce, DeWitt Wallace and Briton Hadden who were journalists first, rather than businesspeople. Do you think in this day and age that a journalist instead of a businessperson can start a magazine or a website and gain the same footing that Time has gained?

Norman Pearlstine: I think there are probably three categories, if you will: there are journalists; there are managers or executives, and there are also the technologists. And we should not ignore the people who can introduce a technology without necessarily understanding the implications of it for information or content, but who become very important players.

When Facebook first started, it’s hard to imagine that it would be everything that it is today. When Jeff Bezos started Amazon, he saw it as a way to sell books. Some of these technologists are every bit the visionaries that a Turner or a Luce was. And Turner didn’t start as a journalist, and in fact it was Brit Hadden who was the editor and Luce was the publisher when Time started. It was only after Hadden’s death that Luce took on the editorial role with great energy and enthusiasm.

I do think that it is certainly possible for a journalist to begin an enterprise today, and in some cases, it’s never been easier because you don’t need a lot of capital to start a blog or something like that. I know Andrew Sullivan just walked away from his experiment, but there was an example of someone who had a pretty good following of people who were supporting something that was purely journalistic. And there are other examples like that.

But as I said, these are really early days. As difficult as it may be to start an effective information journalism blog or something in a community; on the other hand, when I think about the ways in which global distribution will allow long-form to find its audience, I think that there are great opportunities for journalists that will be coming and will continue to be around.

Samir Husni: If you were asked to deliver a journalism graduation speech; what would be your challenge to the recent graduates?
Norman Pearlstine: For many years I was kind of dubious about journalism schools, if only because I thought you could get such good training just working at a newspaper or something. But with the decline in the number of jobs for journalist’s right out of school, I’ve come to think that actually journalism schools are places where you can, first of all, learn basic principles of journalism and learn the importance of fairness and accuracy and all those things that have always been taught.

But in addition, without wanting to make it sound like too much of a trade rather than a profession, learning how to code or to use a Smartphone to take video; those kinds of skill sets I think can now be taught in a way that makes you much more versatile when you come out of school than might have once been the case.

I would encourage people to try and understand the technology as much as possible, recognizing too how quickly it is moving.

Samir Husni: If we look back on your masterful career of being an editor and a chief content officer; what was the major stumbling block that faced you and how did you overcome it?
Norman Pearlstine: Well, first of all, I had to get really serious about my work. I started as a summer intern in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the first day I was assigned an obituary of a Mrs. Druckenmiller and I spelled it ‘Drunkenmiller’ with an ‘n’ and learned rather quickly the importance of accuracy. To this day I’m always afraid that even after I’ve edited something that I’ve written and spellchecked it, that I’ll make another dumb mistake like that. And that was one early lesson.

I’ve come to appreciate over the years that our best stories have heroes and villains, but more often than not, the situation is more gray than black or white. Having to figure out how to make a story a compelling one, but where a desire for fairness really forces you to understand what people do; why they do it, and to really seek out that kind of balance, I think doesn’t come automatically. And that’s one of the things that I always worry about.

For example, if we’re going to print a long, investigative piece, I try to project what the six-page, single-spaced letter I’m going to receive from the person we’re writing about saying what we didn’t understand or what we misconstrued or what we failed to report, will be. And I always worry about that. I continue to think that the use and misuse of anonymous sources is one of the biggest challenges for credibility and trust for journalists.

We live in a world in which, whether it’s Hollywood or Wall Street or Washington, there are spin doctors and managers who insist on anonymity and I’m enough of a realist to understand that it is a part of our profession. But I do worry about ascribing credibility to people who really want to remain anonymous when giving quotes to journalists.

Samir Husni: Is that the lawyer in you, or did you completely give up that law degree that you have when you went into journalism?
Norman Pearlstine: Well, I never practiced. But the law degree was, in many ways, a kind of graduate course of logic. I think the lawyer in me would say just don’t print anonymous sources, but the journalist in me says that’s a disservice to readers. I believe it’s the editor in me that says every time we use an anonymous source, we are taking our brand that the reader trusts and, if you will, asking to extend that to a source that we’re not identifying. I think it’s inevitable and we have to do it, but I also think we have to exert much more care than we do in the use of anonymous sources.

Samir Husni: With all the audience growth for Time Inc. publications across the board, from People to Sports Illustrated; do you ever envision a Time Inc. company with no print publications?
Norm-Pearlstine18198RET Norman Pearlstine: I believe print will continue to be an important part of Time Inc. for the foreseeable future. Never is a long time. I do think that it is very possible that advertising support for print will continue to be under pressure, but I do believe there will continue to be an audience for a printed product who will be willing to pay for that delivery system. And what we’re really talking about in print is a delivery system which in some respects you can understand how technology has created real challenges for.

If the internet had come first and we had electronic distribution of content and I came to you with a business model that said we’ll chop down some trees, get some paper, get a big press and we’ll print on it; we’ll hire drivers to deliver it to your home and we’ll call it a newspaper or a magazine, then we’ll flood the post office with it; you’d probably be a reluctant investor in that product. But having started first with print, we have hundreds of millions of people around the world who still rely on it and appreciate its affordability; who actually like having an editor make determinations of what’s important or what’s entertaining and who are willing to pay a fair price for that content.

So, we may change the model in different ways; we may become more sophisticated about printing and delivering content by zip code or by ways in which our readers define themselves, but I think that there’s still a robust market for print having had such a long tradition of creating content. One of our magazines, The Field (in the United Kingdom), is, I think, over 160 years old. So, we’ve been putting words on paper for a long time and I think the audience for print, the people who are willing to subscribe and pay for content on the printed page, is probably more loyal at this point than the advertisers, who are very much in love with the metrics and measurements that are being promised. It’s not clear to me yet how accurate those metrics are, but there’s certainly affection for them.

Samir Husni: There have been a few controversies taking place in our industry like native advertising or even when you permitted that tiny line for Verizon on the label of the cover and some media people were up in arms. (Laughs)
Norman Pearlstine: Yes, five days of coverage in Ad Age, I think.

Samir Husni: And you had to hunt and find where that ad was. Why do you think the media people are more determined to write our obituary than the actual reality of the situation is? We changed from “print is dead” five years ago, to “print is declining” now, and no one reports on that more than our own media.
Norman Pearlstine: I think the media has always been obsessed with covering itself; it’s a fact that’s not all that new. If you close a news bureau, it’s likely to get much more attention than say, layoffs in the auto industry would. And that’s kind of natural, that on one hand we’re serving an audience, trying to give a worldview, and on the other hand, what happens to us becomes newsworthy and we have that platform.

I do think that there are extraordinary changes that we have to acknowledge. There are now more mobile phones on earth than there are people. And if you live a life where, for instance, you spend a lot of time in airports waiting to get on planes, you don’t find a lot of people reading a newspaper, maybe a few more looking at a magazine, but an awful lot of people are just exchanging emails with friends or telling their kids to do their homework, or using a Smartphone as a form of entertainment that’s very different from what was true before. There are a number of people I know who would bring on a briefcase full of newspapers and magazines for a long flight, and now with a choice of 30 movies and Wi-Fi, we have to share that audience, if you will, with new ways of communication. I think if you’re in the business and every day you’re feeling that pressure, it’s easy to be pessimistic.

I have to look at our own business and say that we finished this year with revenues of $3.3 billion dollars and our operating margin was 16%, and with 33 million print subscriptions per month being delivered to our customers and all of our titles profitable; I have to remind myself that this is still a great business. It may be less than a decade ago when revenues at Time Inc. were $5 billion dollars, we’ve sold off some magazines, but it’s still a very healthy business. Having said that, what’s so wonderful about being spun off from Time Warner is we are able to embrace new technology and create new products for new markets and new consumers. And that’s exciting to me.

I’m not negative on print, but I absolutely believe that some of these new products that we’re creating are really quite exciting. I think you’ve heard about MIMI (mimichatter.com), for example, which is this new product that’s going to focus on fashion and beauty coming out of the InStyle Group. That’s a kind of product that maybe 20 years ago we would have started a small spinoff magazine for millennials, but now we’re excited about the opportunity to be able to reach them using whatever devices that are important to them to take in information.

Samir Husni: Congratulations on MIMI. I read about it and I guess that’s a part of Time Inc.’s future, it’s not, as you said, like a spinoff, but rather thinking about something more innovative and creative to meet the digital age.
Norman Pearlstine: One thing I will say; I believe mobile has come farther and faster and is more significant than certainly any of us thought, say, around 2007 or 2008, when we were thinking about the future of our business. To me, mobile is going to be increasingly a video experience. I’m not saying people won’t read long-form on their Smartphones, but I think video is going to be important.

I think it’s incumbent on every one of our titles to really be creating great, inspiring storytelling through video and print for the mobile audience. So far, of course, there is more Smartphones than tablets, but I’m actually quite optimistic about both.

Samir Husni: We live in a digital age; even a print junkie like me can’t deny that.
Norman Pearlstine: Right. But I also think that if there is an audience that’s willing to pay for print, we’ll continue to produce it and I would say that all of our evidence to date shows that actually our subscription circulation has held up pretty well.

Samir Husni: My question to you then is; are we going to find an audience that is willing to pay for digital? Or have we created a welfare information society?
Norman Pearlstine: When I started watching television it was free and advertiser-supported. It was only with cable that people started paying for it. Outside of Philadelphia, where I grew up, we had three networks and we didn’t pay anything for them. So, there has been a tradition of free information for a while. Your question is a very important one, because, especially on a Smartphone, things like banner ads and pre-roll don’t seem to resonate at this point.

The question of how you get revenue for the products that you’re producing for Smartphones is one that we have to focus on. My guess is that it’ll be a combination of some advertising, some paid products and then a fair amount of linking to commerce. If you’re looking at the latest newsletter from InStyle on your cell phone, your ability to click on that pair of shoes and find out how to buy them within three miles of where you’re located will create some business opportunities. I think that there will be people who have desires for specialized information they’ll pay for.

That B to B may actually have a renaissance for a period on Smart phones. I care about college football and I want to know about the May 1st Declaration Day, when every high school athlete in the country makes a decision about where they’re going to school; a service that would shoot me emails on that would probably be something I’d pay for. If I’m going to pay $1.99 for Angry Birds, chances are there will be some kind of content that we’ll create for a paying audience.

Samir Husni: Why do you think people in the magazine and newspaper industries failed to follow the cable model? I came to the United States in 1978 and everybody was saying, nobody will ever pay for television; why would they pay $10 for cable when television is free? And now, of course, the average American family is paying around $70 or $80 per month to get cable. Why do you think the magazine and newspaper business failed to follow that cable model?
Norman Pearlstine: First of all, until quite recently our margins were so good we didn’t feel any need for change. I do think that Next Issue Media, which Time Inc. has been very supportive of; Joe (Ripp) was very involved in its latest management and Lynne Biggar is now chairman of Next Issue Media, who is our head of consumer marketing. Next Issue Media has a 14.95 per month price tag, which allows you to subscribe to 140 magazines, so we’re beginning to discover some of this.

Meanwhile, of course, HBO just did a deal with Apple recently, which, if you will, sort of walks a little bit away from its subscription model. So, everything is up for grabs.

Samir Husni: What makes Norman get up each morning and say it’s going to be another great day?
Norman Pearlstine: As a chief content officer, I am just exhilarated by the speed with which this business is changing, by the challenges we have, and by the uncertainties, but by an absolute belief that we will continue to create great products that tell stories that address the needs of passionate audiences. To me, to be able to continue to be a journalist, to create new products, to continue to try and serve our audiences the way that we do is a blessing. I feel lucky every day I go to work.

Samir Husni: When you go home in the evening; would we catch you with a magazine in your hand, an iPad or a Smartphone, while you’re sitting and relaxing with a glass of wine?
Norman Pearlstine: I’ve tried that. I do a lot of my reading at night and I still try to read a number of our publications prior to our going to press. I’ll read all of Time or Fortune, Entertainment Weekly or People or Sports Illustrated. That has been my night and weekend activities. And to get paid to be able to read great stories is a wonderful life.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night? Norman Pearlstine: Just emails from Jill (Jill S. Davison, VP, Corporate Communications) telling me that I have an interview with Samir at noon and I better be prepared for it. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs) Thank you.

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2 comments

  1. Samir. One of the best and most informative interviews you ever done. Finally got all the way through it.


    • Thank you John. All my best. Samir



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