Norm Pearlstine: ‘It’s not yet clear what people will pay for.’
Few people have had as illustrious a career in publishing as Norm Pearlstine, who retired in July from Time Inc. He spent 14 years at Time Inc., serving as the company’s editor in chief from 1995 to 2005, and returning in 2013 as chief content officer from Bloomberg LP, where he had the same title. Pearlstine is advising media companies including Money.net and has returned to writing, tackling topics including North Korea, Trump and the media. Our conversation has been lightly edited.
Which media models are most interesting to you these days?
It’s still a tough business. The New York Times is doing great stuff, but I don’t know if the revenues from the subscription can overcome the continued pressures on print, and they seem to be doing as well as anyone. And there are still lot of stories being read by people who aren’t paying for them. Conferences have certainly been important to a place like Fortune. At Money.net, I’m trying to create a credible news service with no journalists. I’m very fascinated by the Associated Press, doing automated earnings stories, but that doesn’t change the economics of the business. It’s not yet clear what people will pay for. But there’s some stunningly good work being done. The hard part is, mobile seems so dominant. People will read in depth, but it’s very hard on a phone to even remember where you saw something.
So models for doing online news at scale are still elusive.
You have Bezos at the [Washington] Post, Laurene Jobs buying into The Atlantic. And Michael Bloomberg is the best example of a business that funds journalism, but journalism isn’t at the core of what they do. What makes the money is those 325,000 who pay $25,000 a year for that service.
What’s your take on the platforms’ role in the media ecosystem?
I don’t know how long these companies can continue to get away with calling themselves platforms instead of media companies. Particularly Facebook, Snapchat and Google. At some point they’ll have to take responsibility for the content on their platforms. There’s the whole fake news question, but there’s also the broader question. At Facebook, there’s an awful lot of content being produced on Facebook. If a blog is paid by L’Oréal, is it content or not? What do you do when The New York Times is doing native advertising — do you treat it the same as their editorial product? Or Forbes’ user generated content?
What are the implications of them being content companies?
I do think there’s probably a journalistic filter they’re going to have to impose. They’re reluctant to go there because they don’t want to piss off hundreds of millions of people. How Google decides what to put on a home page, there is some editorial judgment there, even if they’re saying, these are our algorithms at work. I view them as editorial products, not as platforms. But I don’t know what that means.
Why think American publishers hasn’t pushed back against the platforms as much as the Europeans have?
The short-termness of publishers is such that you don’t want to do anything to screw up your next quarter. When Axel Springer tried to pull its content off Google, they got decimated, so they gave in. Google always said, if you don’t like what we’re doing, don’t give us your stuff.
What was the view toward platforms at Bloomberg, Time Inc.?
They were different. At Bloomberg, as long as you have the highly successful, profitable business of the terminal, you live in that world and as long as that audience is happy, it was, can you cut losses in consumer media. I don’t think they talked a whole lot about it. At Time Inc., I think it’s fair to say that when Snapchat wanted People to be one of the 10 news organizations they would do stuff with, People was delighted. Nobody was thinking about what is this going to mean 10 years from now. There’s lot of pressure to show advertisers you can generate traffic for your brands, so you do anything you can to try to address that.
How do you assess the pivot to video?
Everybody who’s in print wants to get into video. I admire Hearst probably more than any other company. They’ve probably been smarter about video any company. The Newhouses have 20 percent of Charter, Discovery. They make it possible to do Condé Nast. But I think the law of supply and demand is going to impact our business and there’s going to be so much video, the CPMs are going to be under the same pressure as everything else. I’m seeing some examples of it now. I don’t think you have a choice. I just don’t know how long it lasts.
The argument is, people want video.
I think it’s a slow way to get information, but it’s good way to be entertained. I do find myself reading long pieces still.
What’s the case for Time magazine today?
There’s still a case for a smart outlet that makes sense of information, and I think there’s an argument for the frequency. I’m not sure what the natural audience is. The Week, The Economist, The New Yorker, they’re all much smaller. But if you lose that size, do you lose that clout? Donald Trump cares what Time puts on its cover in part because it still delivers a big audience. When Time is on its game, it is one of those publications that can set an agenda, and has done so. The Steve Brill cover story on health care, I thought that was the biggest selling issue of the year for them. Maybe you need to do more like that. But I think Time’s going to be around for a while in print, and could do a lot more online than it’s done.
Headshot: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty, via Fortune
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