It’s been a little more than a week since Time Inc. ceased to exist, and over at 225 Liberty Street on the banks of New York Harbor, where Meredith Corporation has assumed control of the 95-year-old magazine behemoth’s hundred-some-odd print and digital titles, the Earth is still spinning, the sun is still rising, and thousands of acquisition-weary employees are going about their daily business, albeit with a burning question in the backs of their minds: what next? Of particular interest to Meredith’s newly anointed denizens is the matter of if—when?—the Des Moines-based publisher will unload some of the erstwhile Time Inc. properties it has snatched up, especially those that seem less than suited to Meredith’s lifestyle-heavy portfolio. There’s been no shortage of queries from interested parties, people briefed on the matter told me, and the company’s C.E.O. all but hung a “for sale” sign during a conference call after the $1.8 billion deal closed on January 31, telling analysts and investors, “We have been pleasantly surprised with recent transaction prices in the media space, and inbound interest for certain properties has been strong.” A Meredith spokesman wouldn’t comment on the sale buzz beyond saying that “a full portfolio review is underway” and there will be “no decisions until that has been completed.”
Reed Phillips, an investment banker at Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips, told me he was “surprised by the high level of interest,” including from about half a dozen potential bidders who have contacted him thus far (but whose names he wouldn’t divulge). Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and Entertainment Weekly are the hot properties, he said, noting that suitors are most likely to be rich trophy buyers, former media executives, and possibly other publishers. Private equity, not so much, “except maybe for some firms that would do distress deals,” Phillips said. “Strategic buyers or wealthy individuals are gonna win out.“
If the internal speculation is on point, Sports Illustrated is not long for Meredith’s world, with many expecting it will be sold first and fast because, as a masculine title, it is undoubtedly the sorest thumb in a stable that serves a predominantly female audience—the Better Homes and Gardens-Real Simple-Rachael Ray Every Day demographic. “It would be really surprising if they decided to keep it,” one knowledgeable insider told me. “I would think the announcement will come soon.” Fortune could conceivably draw buyers who are attracted to its well-established events component, which has been a growth area for the publication over the past several years thanks to the buzz around splashy shindigs like the Most Powerful Women Summit. When Alan Murray was elevated to chief content officer of Time Inc., he also retained a title as president of Fortune, and people who know him are betting that wherever Fortune goes, he goes with it. There’s even interest in what remains of Life, the legendary picture-driven title that lives on, as it were, as a section of time.com, where readers can browse and purchase images from Life’s vast, and lucrative, photography archive. Jim Gaines, a Time Inc. vet who has edited Life, Time, and People, tried to mount a bid for the Life brand (minus the photo collection) several years ago, including a pitch to Steven Spielberg for backing, and he’s back at it again trying to entice possible investors.
In terms of who could be in the market for some of the major titles, there are the usual suspects. One is Jimmy Finkelstein, a serial media shopper and owner of The Hill who has contacted Meredith to express his interest in Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Entertainment Weekly, according to people with knowledge of his intentions. National Enquirer owner and Trump pal David Pecker of American Media Inc. had expressed interest in buying Time Inc. in the months prior to the Meredith deal and could re-emerge in the sweepstakes for certain titles, but as of now, “no AMI executive has seen or spoken to any Meredith executive,” according to a person with knowledge of the two companies’ interactions (or lack thereof). Penske Media Corporation has been on a shopping spree lately, including its recent acquisition of a controlling stake in Rolling Stone and at least one other deal currently in the works, but a source close to the company told me it has its “hands full” and is not presently interested in any of Meredith’s bounty.
The most seismic sale, of course, would be Time, the publication that started it all way back in 1923, when a 24-year-old Henry Luce laid the first bricks of an enterprise that went on to become America’s largest magazine publisher and an international media powerhouse. In the U.S., Time’s influence circa 2018 is a far cry from the golden age of the newsweeklies, when its covers were consistent and reliable drivers of the national conversation. But even today, its global cachet remains strong, which has raised the prospect of overseas interest. The Chinese business magnate Wang Jianlin, for instance, is said to have been interested in Time Inc. in recent years. Another name that has circulated within the Time network is Cyrus Mistry, an Irish businessman of Indian origin who was sacked from his role as chairman of the Mumbai-based conglomerate Tata Group in 2016. One imagines there could be any number of well-heeled individuals lining up, including some you may never have heard of, like Bhu Srinivasan, a Connecticut-based, 41-year-old digital-media entrepreneur whose name has surfaced among dealmakers. Time journalists surely must be dreaming about the Jeff Bezos-es and Laurene Powell Jobs-es of the world—some benevolent billionaire who might just ride in on a white horse to save the day. (A casual conversation that former Time editor Nancy Gibbs had with Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook at the Fortune Global Forum in China back in December might have led to some wishful thinking, but there was nothing to it, people with knowledge of the conversation told me.)
Despite the seemingly hot sale prospects and the prevailing sense that Meredith has no need for newsy and/or weekly publications that don’t gel with its softer monthly model, multiple insiders pointed out that there are also arguments against selling. People, though weekly, is still a cash cow, albeit diminished from its former glory. Fortune’s conference mojo gives Meredith access to a non-traditional revenue stream. Time and Sports Illustrated have significant digital scale, and Meredith, like all media companies, is all about scale. But really, anything and everything is for sale if the price is right. This message has been broadcast loud and clear by Tom Harty, the C.E.O., in meetings with editors, including when he sat in on a regularly scheduled editors’ luncheon in the sixth-floor boardroom. “Everything I’ve seen with these folks is that they say what they mean,” a person who has interacted with the brass told me. “They don’t hide the ball.” Lest anyone still feel jittery about a $650 million investment from the private-equity arm of conservative mega-donors Charles and David Koch, which helped make the Time Inc. sale possible, there’s an anecdote making the rounds that Meredith Chairman Steve Lacy, while traveling, had reached out to the Koch camp about a casual meet-and-greet, but was declined—a sign, perhaps, that the Kochs do in fact intend to remain as hands-off as they have vowed. (Reps for Meredith and Koch Industries didn’t have anything for me on this.)
On Meredith’s first full day of ownership, Harty and Lacy greeted employees on their way into 225 Liberty, where they spent hours shaking hands with the rank and file. There was continental breakfast on every floor, and when employees got to their desks, Meredith-branded tote bags filled with Meredith-branded Thermoses and Meredith-branded smartphone grips awaited them. The brass has promised a town hall-style pow-wow for early spring, and the new company motto is appropriately mawkish: “Be bold. Together.” Managers have encouraged their charges to focus on the bright side by talking up the publicly traded Meredith Corporation’s operational acumen and solid track record of meeting quarterly earnings guidance. But for many, especially those still coming to terms with the once inconceivable downfall of one of America’s most storied media institutions, the change has been jarring.
In New York terms, Time Inc. had come to be seen as a fairly stodgy enterprise, given its illustrious, high-flying history. Now its refugees are acclimating to an even newer set of circumstances, from Meredith’s inherently Midwestern vibe to a C-suite that looks as white, male, and middle-aged as they come, and a re-orientation to a print-centric culture after years of living and dying by the gospel of digital. (It had essentially become heresy for Time Inc. people to refer to their employer as a “magazine” company.) As one insider put it, unintentionally evoking the always-inevitable pun, “It kind of feels like we’re going back in time.”
Follow to get the latest news and analysis about the players in your inbox.
See All Players