Who killed Time Inc.?

Last Thursday, February 1st 2018, Time Inc.’s corporate website was redirecting traffic to Meredith. Former Editor in Chief John Huey tweeted: “R.I.P. Time Inc. The 95-year run is over.”

While the demise of Time Inc. has been coming for months, even years, its arrival nevertheless is a jarring moment for journalism.

The end of Time Inc. is also unsettling because the forces that doomed it seem stronger than ever. “We lived through a seismic change in the business of media, and what happened at Time to one degree or another has happened to every other journalistic enterprise both native and traditional,” says Josh Quittner, who was editor of Business 2.0, a “New Economy” magazine that Time Warner bought in 2001 and closed in 2007. “No one has figured it out because there’s nothing to figure out. It’s like the horse trying to figure out the automobile.”

But Time Inc. was especially vulnerable and serves as a warning. It lived within a giant entertainment conglomerate, Time Warner, which had other priorities. Its key decision makers, who had long track records of editorial achievement and business success, could not move beyond the old print paradigm.

Its weeklies, bi-weeklies, and monthlies were ill-suited to the internet’s real-time, high-volume pace. Time Inc.’s fat operating profits made true innovation appear dangerous to hidebound managers who felt they had too much to lose. It never developed a coherent digital strategy.

“What are we going to do, cannibalize this incredible business for this uncertain thing? Are you going to cut your arm off so you can save the body later?” asks Craig Matters, whose 17-year career at Time Inc. included stints as editor of CNNMoney and managing editor of Money magazine. “We were just never willing to make those kinds of decisions.”

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Editor’s note: In 2003, a former professor of entrepreneurial management at Harvard Business School, Clark Gilbert, wrote these salutary words in the opening paragraph of his MIT Sloan research feature: “Disruptive innovation has usually been considered by established businesses as an attack that must be met through defensive measures…..but the real story behind disruptive innovation is not one of destruction, but of its opposite: In every industry changed by disruption, the net effect has been total market growth. Moreover, disruption can be a powerful avenue for growth through new market discovery for incumbents as well as for upstarts.”  These words remain as powerful today as they did then.