Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Time Inc.’s Closed-Wallet Strategy

Time Inc. made its initial public filing on Friday afternoon, as it prepares to jettison from Time Warner. Nothing surprising in there: As we already knew, the publishing giant has been watching its revenue flatline — or worse — for years, but it still continues to generate hundreds of millions in profit.

But Time’s first filing does contain at least one snippet that gives you a sense of what it has been like to work there for the last few years. Here’s how a company that generates more than $3.5 billion in revenue a year has been putting that money to work, via investments and acquisitions (click to enlarge):

Time Inc. M&A

That is, beyond a $15 million deal for StyleFeeder, an e-commerce startup, Time Inc. basically stayed pat between 2010 and 2012.

Time did pull the trigger on a deal to acquire American Express Publishing this fall, which let it add properties like Food & Wine magazine, but that was also pretty modest: Because AmEx and Time Inc. were already in something close to a joint venture, Time Inc. will end up netting $20 million on the transaction.

That stasis isn’t surprising, given the revolving door at the top of Time Inc. Longtime CEO Ann Moore left in 2010, and was replaced by Jack Griffin, who lasted less than six months. The publisher was left without a new boss for another year until Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes brought in Laura Lang, who made it a bit more than a year before announcing she was leaving, too. New CEO Joe Ripp came in about half a year later.

And while Time Inc executives said they were given the go-ahead by Time Warner bosses to pursue M&A opportunities even when they didn’t have a CEO to report to, it’s hard to imagine the company making bold bets or writing big checks during that period.

But Time’s competitors did. A sampling: Meredith Corp. plunked down $175 million for food site Allrecipes, Conde Nast’s parent company started up a $500 million digital M&A fund, and Hearst forked out $900 million for Lagardère, which gave it control of Elle and dozens of other titles.

Oh, and to rub it in: Time Inc.’s parent company went ahead and spent $200 million on Bleacher Report, a site that competes directly with Time’s Sports Illustrated.

Requisite “to be sure” graph: Spending money doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything other than spending money. For all we know, the Time Inc. brain trust dodged many bullets by not investing in daily-deal sites, or stuff-in-a-box subscription startups, or other digital properties that seemed sexy a couple years ago and much less so now.

On the other hand, there are a bunch of Time Inc. folks who are convinced they need to buy growth assets, digital or otherwise, and fret that they’ve spent years missing out on chances. Maybe they’ll get one, now that they’re heading out on their own.

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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