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Somewhere in Nevada (while on assignment for the late, and sometimes great Time Magazine). Copyright 2018 Kenneth Jarecke / Contact Press Images

Synergy — Killer of Time and Life

There’s a great article today in CJR that explains why Time Inc. failed. It’s the standard tale of when hubris meets greed and they decide to work together to destroy us all.

You can read it here.

What the article doesn’t point out is that Time Inc. deserved to die. It had it coming. At worst it was justifiable homicide, at best, assisted suicide. Of course, all the players that have nothing or very little to do with creating quality content left with their pockets filled. The journalists, artists, copywriters, photographers, editors, designers… not so much.

Surprised? Me either.

Yes, Time Inc. deserved its fate. Time/Life, the golden goose responsible for generating all this wealth, did not. The bullet that killed it was fired in the late 1980’s, and like LaBoeuf (played by Glen Cambell) in True Grit, it was just too stupid to know it was dead.

Synergy is what killed Time/Life. The idea that different creative types can produce a stronger, more cost effect product when they’re all working together on the same corporate team. Yes, exactly like it worked for Picasso. Not.

Time/Life had a pretty straightforward philosophy when it came to dealing with these creatives. Find the best ones and pay them twice what they’re worth.

Synergy has no patience for that kind of anti-corporate thought.

Time Inc. corporate thought worked like this, find two creatives that are half as talented as the one you just fired. Pay them less than they’re worth, work them twice as hard and then fire one of them at that end of the year so you’ll get yourself a nice bonus.

Even at the end, or technically now, there are people at all of Time Inc. (former) publications who are under paid and overworked, while the people who put them in that position are cashing multimillion dollar checks.

Of course, the same thing is happening now over at the Washington Post. Don’t get me started on those poor, underpaid bastards. I’m guessing there’s nothing quite like begging for pennies on the dollar, while the richest man in the world laughs in your face.

Without a major change in thinking (and spending) the results will eventually be the same. The talent leaves, the quality drops, and the product fails.

Oh well, back to Time/Life (notice Time/Life and Time Inc. are two separate entities).

The thing that happened at Time/Life was their executives (to wedge a long complicated story into a nutshell), thought they should buy Compuserve, which was once another word for “the internet”. The government wouldn’t let them. Their cash was still burning a hole in their pocket, think like Google cash, and they desperately wanted to spend it. Somehow, they ended up buying Warner Brothers, and in doing so, becoming controlled by Warner’s CEO Steve Ross.

No, it doesn’t make sense to me either.

Shortly after this, they launched an internet platform called Pathfinder, which was kind of destination site for all of their publications online. It failed, and burnt millions of dollars in the process. Time/Warner then bought AOL, which replaced Compuserve as another word for “the internet”. Then the internet bubble crashed and everybody looked around at each other and wondered what just happened.

Jobs were cut, positions eliminated, and budgets slashed.

Meanwhile, its important to remember that all of the executives who made these foolish bets are still making bank.

Here’s something I wrote back in March of 2013:

Author’s note — Madonna was a pop singer under contract to Time/Warner and thought highly of herself.

“Why doesn’t synergy work? Easy, because just like everybody else, Madonna wants to get paid. If you use one of her songs in a Warner Brothers movie, she’s going to charge your ass, even though she recorded that song with Warner Brothers in the first place. You want to publish a Time/Life book on Madonna? Cut her a check. They don’t call her the Material Girl for nothing.
We all gotta eat and synergy is the same thing that caused the cabbages to rot in the fields while people were starving in Moscow.
Synergy is executive speak for, “We’re going to make more profit off of your work. We’re not going to pay you more and you’re going to have to work a lot harder.”

It saddens me to admit this, but Madonna was right. She got hers. They got theirs. We? We got bupkis.

The sad thing about all of this is, if the Time/Life executives would have only kept their/our (hey, we were family once) money in the bank, Time/Life would still be a thing today. If you took a cab to 1271 Avenue of the Americas (say sixth avenue), the words Time/Life would still be on the building. If you went up to the 28th floor of that building, Margaret Bourke-White’s name would still be there as well.

And most importantly, Time/Life would still be producing insightful, longterm stories, the kind they were once famous for (cherished really), the kind that don’t produce easy clicks, the kind that give a society a common touchstone so that we can discuss the important things that affect us all.

Time/Life could have gone for thirty years without generating a single penny of profit. Instead, they jumped into the internet pool without first knowing how to swim. How much did that cost us?

Oh well, at least some executives got their money out of the deal.