Time Warner Put the “For Sale” Sign on Time Inc. Last Fall
People have been wondering for a long time when Time Warner would sell off Time Inc. And for a long time, whenever anyone asked CEO Jeff Bewkes or senior management about the publishing company, they’d inevitably say something like “we like it, we’re keeping it.”
But when analyst Jessica Reif Cohen asked CFO John Martin the same question back in September, he gave a different answer, and people in and outside of Time Inc. took notice. Here’s the excerpt of their conversation at Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s media conference (I’ve highlighted a few key parts):
Cohen: In June, News Corp announced plans to separate the publishing business and other small entities from the core media and entertainment franchises. In the second quarter, Time Inc., reported, or your publishing unit reported revenue down 9%, advertising was down 7%, subscription revenue 11%. I mean this is not really a great numbers, so they really kind of dragged down the overall company growth. I mean, would a separation of Time Inc. from your cable network and studio business make sense at some point?
Martin: I wouldn’t rule anything out at some point, but I don’t think it’s exactly synonymous Time Inc. to whatever News Corp’s decision was with respect to particularly newspapers. I mean, Time Inc. is a company that is dealing with nationally branded environments and transitioning to digital and there’s a lot of commonality between the strategy and the issues that we’re facing in our TV and home entertainment businesses as there is in our publishing businesses – probably more commonality now than there has been in the past.
Having said all of that, I would also – I think it’s fair to say we’re disappointed with the results at Time Inc. It’s being driven by the industry, not by the performance of the management, and so we’re proud of the management’s execution against what is a really, really difficult industry backdrop, but I would say – and I think our past is an indicator of this, given what we’ve done with Time Warner Cable and AOL – is that our job is to figure out how to value maximize. And so I wouldn’t rule anything out in the future, but right now, we are working hard and Laura Lang, the new CEO and her team, is working hard to figure out how to meaningfully transition that business to be a multi platform branded environments business, where we’re going to have to continue to obviously make sure that the costs match up against the revenue trajectory as well.
We’ve got a lot of great things going on at Time Warner, and we’re really proud of and while we’re proud of the performance of our publishing unit, within the publishing industry, I think it’s fair to say that we’re disappointed with the secular dynamics in publishing right now.
Translation: We’re in the TV and movie business, and we happen to have a publishing company. We’ll say good things about our publishing company, but please notice that we’ve already sold off our cable pipe business and our Internet business. Meanwhile, we’re going to have to cut costs.
Last week, Time Inc. took care of the cost-cutting part. So today’s report, from Time Inc. publication Fortune, that Time Warner is talking to a “serious buyer” about offloading most of its Time Inc. titles, including People, shouldn’t be a huge surprise.
Since we’re all speculating about buyers, let me suggest that you certainly don’t have to be in the publishing business to be interested in buying most of Time Inc.
The magazine industry is in trouble, but the world’s biggest magazine publisher still makes a lot of money — $420 million in operating profit last year. Wouldn’t be shocked to see a financial buyer who thinks they can cut more costs and pocket a lot of the profit. [UPDATE: The New York Times reports that Meredith, the publisher that puts out titles like Better Homes and Gardens, is the mystery buyer. Still think that "non-strategics" will take a looksee.]