02.18.11

Jack Griffin Out: Inside Time's CEO Debacle

Jack Griffin got the boot from Time Inc.'s magazine division just five months after taking the reins. Howard Kurtz on what went wrong, and the media battle to control the shakeup’s narrative.

It didn’t take long, once the chairman of Time Warner’s magazine group was abruptly booted Friday, for the spinning and counterspinning to begin.

Chief Executive Jeffrey Bewkes had some explaining to do, since he installed Jack Griffin in the job just five months ago. And so details began leaking about what a bullheaded manager Griffin was, a man who didn’t work and play well with others.

This led to a response, also passed to reporters with no names attached, that the Time Inc. culture is a tradition-encrusted bastion utterly resistant to the kind of change that Griffin was pushing.

Time Inc. insiders tell me that Griffin did in fact push through some changes that will remain, although it’s not the kind of stuff anyone outside the empire would care much about. Griffin, for instance, unraveled a complicated management structure imposed by his predecessor, Ann Moore, that combined such magazines as Time, Sports Illustrated, Money, and Fortune into one news group. Griffin moved SI to a separate sports unit and moved some executives around.

He unnerved veteran staffers by flooding the place with consultants, but the insiders say he never tried to encroach on journalistic independence. He had a tough style, these folks say, but Moore was no creampuff either.

But there was damage control to be done, by virtue of painting Griffin—a well-regarded executive who had worked for Meredith Corp.—as a royal pain. One source told Paid Content: “It’s not like Jack wasn’t aware of what the issue was but it didn’t get better, it got worse… he becomes a distraction,” and Bewkes “was worried about losing talent.”

A source told Women’s Wear Daily: “Time Inc. has long operated on the collegial consensus approach and I don’t think that was Jack’s strength.”

Reuters quoted a source as saying: “It was a series of behaviors that made it clear that this was not a good fit.”

Gallery: 13 Media Quakes

“He had a style that some people would describe as demeaning,” one employee told Ad Age.

And Mediaite reported that Griffin kept "repeatedly referring to his Roman Catholic faith during meetings, even comparing Time Inc. to the Vatican."

Boom. Boom. Boom. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. But you start to wonder why Bewkes hired him in the first place.

Griffin returned fire, with “a person close to him” telling The New York Times: “Jack’s exit had nothing to do with management style and everything to do with the question of whether Time is manageable so long as entrenched interests fiercely resist the change necessary to position the organization for the future.” So there.

Both sides were clearly trying to shape the day’s narrative.

In the announcement to the staff, Bewkes did not engage in the polite corporate fiction that Griffin wanted to pursue other opportunities or spend more time with his family. “Although Jack is an extremely accomplished executive,” Bewkes wrote, “I concluded that his leadership style and approach did not mesh with Time Inc. and Time Warner.

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Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes sacked Time Inc. Chairman Jack Griffin after six months. (Credit: Diane Bondareff / AP Photo)

As in most corporate shakeups, it is undoubtedly true that the new guy ran into resistance trying to make changes and move bodies around in a stodgy institution, and also that he rubbed key people the wrong way. It all happened so quickly that Time Warner didn’t have a successor lined up, adding to the messiness of the ouster.

Meanwhile in media…

In a more collegial vein, The New York Times plans to “reinvent” its venerable Week in Review section, and is inviting staff members—imagine that—to offer suggestions.

Griffin unnerved veteran staffers by flooding the place with consultants, but the insiders say he never tried to encroach on journalistic independence.

In a memo, Executive Editor Bill Keller and Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal seem to envision more opinion and outside voices, rather than just having reporters riff on the week’s news:

“The new section is not intended to relax the important distinction between news and opinion. Reporters and editors who work in the newsroom will observe the boundary between analysis (which supplies context, explores trends, weighs assertions against evidence) and opinion (which may be partisan or ideological and advocate particular outcomes). But impartial analysis and outright opinion can live side-by-side as long as they are properly labeled.”

The commentary section will include “some fine analysis and observation from our best writers in the newsroom; the best outside opinion writing (more like the classical op-ed pieces); a much expanded and enhanced readers’ section (letters to the editor on steroids in the 21st century), as well as new kinds of features and new voices and ideas.”

Sounds like it can no longer really be called Week in Review, a name redolent of a time when news traveled far more slowly.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.