Peter Kafka

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Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore: Let’s Put the Digital “Genie Back in the Bottle” [UPDATED]

geniePoor John Squires. The Time Inc. SVP seems like an affable fellow. So what has he done to deserve this impossible task–figuring out a digital strategy for Time Warner’s (TWX) publishing unit? Or, to put it in Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore’s words, figuring out “how to put the genie back in the bottle”?

While Squires solves that riddle, he’ll leave his day job as head of the “news business unit” (Time, Fortune, Money, etc.). In his place will be… Moore, who is already running the company’s style group.

I chatted briefly via email with Squires, who is good-natured about the assignment. But I have to take issue with him (and everyone else who uses this example) re iTunes. Apple (AAPL) didn’t prove that people are willing to pay for content online–we’d already seen that (at The Wall Street Journal, among other examples). Apple proved that people are willing to pay for portions–that would be songs–of products that were previously only sold in bundles–that would be CDs.

You can debate whether this was terrible for the music industry or simply the least-bad option. But I don’t think it makes sense to compare the experience of the music industry with news and other Web content that people aren’t used to paying for in any form.

Here’s my Q&A with Squires:

MediaMemo: I’m struck by Ann’s “genie” reference–are we meant to take that in a tongue-in-cheek way, or do you folks really think you can put the free-content genie back in the bottle? Or am I misinterpreting that?

John Squires: We’re not unrealistic about the challenge, but iTunes showed people will pay for something attractively packaged and fairly priced that they once got for free….We also wanted to get your attention. So I guess we’re genies.

MM: Do you imagine that Time Inc. will be taking content that’s currently available for free online and putting it behind a pay wall? Or are you more focused on creating new products you can charge for?

JS: This is part of what we’ll be testing. Certainly some online content will remain free because we’re eager to keep our large online audiences (over 26 million Nielsen uniques) and successful advertising model. Some other online content may be subscription-based. And the content we create for mobile readers will be a completely new experience, with different design and functions that we think consumers will want to pay for.

MM: Haven’t heard Time Inc.’s voice in the “Google isn’t playing fair” chorus. How much, if any, energy are you spending on getting the search engine to help you/take less from you, etc.?

JS: We’re not part of that chorus at the moment.

MM: Is this a permanent assignment or will you go back to News at some point?

JS: We’ll see what comes out of this assignment.

And here’s the companywide memo from Moore:

To:       Time Inc. Employees

From:   Ann Moore

Re: How to Put the Genie Back Into the Bottle; Special Assignment for John Squires

It won’t be a revelation to any of you that the publishing business is changing rapidly. While print magazines are not going away, and while we have built vibrant websites with over 26 million unique visitors and 750 million pages views each month, it’s increasingly clear that finding the right digital business model is crucial for the future of our business. We need to develop a strategy for the portable digital world and to refine our views on paid content.

Given the magnitude of the opportunity, I have asked John Squires to take on a new role and devote his full time efforts this summer to developing the best business plan for the future. John’s qualifications for this assignment are ideal. He has a strong background in consumer marketing and digital content and has stature in the publishing industry, as well as with digital software and hardware companies. It is likely we will be seeking partners and allies in our quest to ‘put the genie back into the bottle’.

As many of you know, we are currently pursuing four related initiatives:

1.    Evolving our current website businesses by identifying and developing consumer revenue streams.

2.    Accelerating the creation of applications for smartphone platforms.

3.    Developing new products and business models for portable digital readers.

4.    Exploring partnerships with other publishers to develop the optimal retail store for our digital products.

John will need the support of many, including Consumer Marketing, Legal, Strategy and Business Development, and the Time Inc. titles. Please pitch in with all your resources available when he calls.

During this assignment, similar to the role I’m playing at the Style and Entertainment Group, I will assume responsibility for the News Business Unit.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald