The Koch Brothers Could Turn Time Magazine Into Fox News (If They Wanted To)
And you know who would love that...
BY Michael Sebastian | Nov 28, 2017 | Culture
Time Inc. once owned a forest in East Texas. The forest, which the company held for 30 years, was a symbol of the organization's power: It owned the very source of its influence—the very paper that its magazines' printed ink on. If the Postal Service had been for sale, Time Inc. likely would’ve bought that, too.
On Sunday, Time Inc.—which owns Time, People, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, InStyle, and several other magazines—was sold to Meredith, owner of magazines like Better Homes and Gardens, for about $3 billion. Until 2014, Time Inc. was part of Time Warner, the media behemoth that owns Warner Brothers, HBO, and CNN—the same company that AT&T is now trying to buy. Starting in 2012, Time Warner sought to rid itself of the magazine division because it was no longer as profitable as it once was. The magazines had served as a form of ATM machine for Time Warner, helping to fund the development of HBO. Now that the returns had diminished, Time Warner was unloading print. It came very close to selling to Meredith in 2013, but the deal collapsed because Meredith didn’t want the newsier titles like Time.
David Koch pictured in 2012. Image by Getty
Normally, this kind of dealmaking wouldn’t matter much to subscribers. Media companies often change hands. But Sunday's Meredith-Time deal was partly financed by the private equity arm of David and Charles Koch, billionaire brothers from Kansas who've shaped modern conservatism with their donations. Their deep pockets, for instance, helped Scott Walker win and retain the governorship of Wisconsin, where he’s gutted labour unions, a major Koch priority. In Trump, the Kochs have a more complicated relationship: David and Charles didn’t support him during the general election, but there’s reportedly been a detente between the mega-donors and the president of late.
The Kochs said they won’t hold any editorial influence over Time Inc. We’ll see. Rupert Murdoch insisted he wouldn’t meddle in The Wall Street Journal’s journalism. Recent reports have suggested Murdoch is doing just that when it comes to the Journal’s coverage of the Trump White House (which the paper has denied).
It was a single Time Inc. decision in 2013—one that few, if any readers knew about—that could make the Koch’s meddling a very real possibility.
The editorial independence of Time Inc. was once a storied part of the company, so much so that one of its top executives was Editor in Chief (of the company, not of a specific brand). The magazine editors reported to this person, and he or she was charged with protecting the editorial integrity of the various publications. A permanent fixture in that person’s office was a Pope’s miter—a pope’s hat, in other words—that served as a symbol of the importance of keeping pure its editorial content. A Time Inc. executive once candidly referred to the hat as a “yoke” because it prevented editors from thinking like marketers.
Charles Koch in 2015. Image by Getty and The Washington Post
In 2014, as the magazine publisher prepared for this uncertain future after spinning off from Time Warner, its then CEO, Joe Ripp, made a sudden and, for many Time Inc. employees, shocking move: He eliminated the editor in chief position.
The last editor in chief was a highly respected journalist named Martha Nelson. In November 2013, seven months before Time Inc. became a publicly traded company, Nelson left the company and the magazine editors were told to effectively report to the business side. At the time, I was a media reporter and clearly remember talking to one exasperated editor who shouted at me: “THIS IS A BIG FUCKING DEAL!” I had to hold the phone away from my ear as he continued to yell. Members of the advertising community, as well as potential Wall Street investors, told me they were cheering the decision.
ONE EXASPERATED EDITOR SHOUTED AT ME: “THIS IS A BIG FUCKING DEAL!”
A couple weeks later, editors at the company’s magazines and websites received a parting gift from Nelson. She cut the pope’s hat into pieces, framed them and sent the framed pieces to the editors with a note saying:
This fragment comes from the 'Pope's Miter,' which resided in the office of the editor in chief of Time Inc. While the miter was passed on in jest, it symbolized the earnest belief in editorial independence, truth and integrity. Now that responsibility rests in your hands.
The symbolic move must have made a difference. If that seismic shift did affect the editorial independence of Time, Fortune, or People, I doubt any readers noticed. Joe Ripp assured me nothing would change and, on the outside looking in, it appears he was speaking the truth.
But now, without someone standing guard over those titles, there is the very real possibility that the Koch brothers could meddle in, say, Time magazine’s journalism.
Martha Nelson speaks onstage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in 2013. Image by Getty
Although Time’s financial success has waned in the last decade—the print magazine has thinned out along with its circulation—the title boasts a large digital audience and a certain cache, especially to the president, who has a fake Time cover with him on it hanging in many of his golf clubs. Over the weekend, Trump tweeted that he had declined Time’s invitation to be Person of the Year, an assertion the magazine disputed. But Time feels oddly centrists and unbiased in an increasingly polarized world. The Kochs could steer the editorial in their direction, to make it the magazine equivalent of Fox News. That could help boost the magazine’s readership.
We won’t know until we know. Meredith could sell Time and Fortune. But a decision made in 2013 to effectively please the advertising community now sets up the very real possibility that Time magazine could become a mainstream voice for the conservative movement. And regardless of your politics, that would be a big fucking deal.