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Summary:

My first thought when I heard that Jeff Bewkes fired Time Inc. CEO Jack Griffin was a sentence I can’t print here. The second one: maybe he…

Jeff Bewkes
photo: AP Images

My first thought when I heard that Jeff Bewkes fired Time Inc. CEO Jack Griffin was a sentence I can’t print here. The second one: maybe he learned something from AOL (NYSE: AOL) after all. According to one Time Inc. (NYSE: TWX) insider, Bewkes moved quickly after warnings to Griffin failed: “It’s not like Jack wasn’t aware of what the issue was but it didn’t get better, it got worse.”

The insider added: “It was a difficult but bold decision to move him out before he becomes a distraction. He was worried about losing talent.” Bewkes was aware some business and editorial executives he considered to be important to Time Inc.’s current push in the right direction were considering leaving out of frustration with Griffin and concern about their positions. (To be sure, Griffin may have a very different story to tell — and if he does, we’ll report it.)

Another insider, who is aware personally of staffers who had reached out to Bewkes with their concerns, spoke of shock and relief mixed with some worries over the way Griffin was fired, saying it was handled badly. It could have waited until a permanent CEO was put in place, instead of a temporary fix that also has people worried about what comes next. But this allowed Bewkes to avoid the inevitable leaks about problems and a different kind of disruption.

Griffin not only failed to acclimate to the Time Inc. culture, he brought in a number of outsiders who also didn’t mesh with the existing staff — including consultants, leaving an impression that he didn’t respect a lot of what he found at Time Inc.. At the same time, veteran Time Inc. staffers were disturbed by the way communications head Dawn Bridges was isolated and then pushed out and the departure of other execs.

Both stressed that the concern about outsiders does not extend to Randall Rothenberg, brought in by Griffin as chief digital officer. Rothenberg, the former head of IAB, has been on the job less than a month and they do not want him to leave. Rothenberg did not reply to interview requests Thursday night,

A Time Inc. executive said bringing in Peter Kreisky as a consultant was a major mistake, and that his “extreme opinions” caused problems. This exec didn’t find fault with trying to change the organization but said the failure to listen to people and the lack of desire to find a “happy medium” was the problem: “There was a schism between the old and the new, and Jack failed to bring that together.” At the same time, people took note that the company he came from, Meredith (NYSE: MDP) was smaller than some Time Inc. divisions,

Some of the present and former Time Inc. staffers who spoke with me and my colleague David Kaplan cited examples of improvements Griffin made but multiple people described being uncomfortable with language that was sexist or racist. He talked about being at a company where he could “read the magazines” — Meredith focuses on women and shelter magazines — and emphasized Time over the lifestyle and entertainment titles; and there was a feeling, said one exec, that the people he brought in tilted toward men.

What does this have to do with AOL? Although the situations are quite different, many of the concerns now coming out are similar to those expressed by AOL staff following the Bewkes swap of Jon Miller for Randy Falco.. It was an often-poisonous situation that was allowed to fester until some of the talent AOL needed to keep slipped away or was pushed — and the unit, with Bekwes’ full backing, spent $850 million to acquire Bebo. He rebounded there by bringing in the more charismatic and team-oriented Tim Armstrong to lead AOL to a spinoff and move it off the Time Warner books.

That Bewkes move came after a failed direction exacerbated by poor leadership at the top. (Yes, I know Ron Grant takes a lot of heat for this as part of the duo.) This one is not about a change of direction, the first insider stressed — it’s about leadership at Time Warner and Time Inc. This time, Bewkes is admitting he made a mistake — and early enough in the process to make a difference.

If he can avoid the issues that crop up with management by committee in the interim — and make the right choice after his own failure finding a successor to Ann Moore, he’ll come out ahead and Time Inc. should, too.

Update: An unidentified person close to Griffin rejected the management style allegations in an interview with the New York Times, saying it was all about entrenched insiders reacting to change: “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.”

  1. The state of Iowa. Friday, February 18, 2011

    Jack was book smart. But he could not inspire a group of hookers with a fistful of $20′s. Most people did not like being around him.

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  2. And the Time Inc. old-school mentality and culture lives on. As a 12+ year digital specialist who was brought in to help define and grow their digital business, management was/is terrible. The old school mentality still exists and they are well behind in a number of areas – from multiple ad-serving systems to their deals with ad networks to how digital is perceived and positioned throughout the organization. There have been improvements but they are not moving nearly as quickly and efficiently as they need to. Rothenberg is a HUGE step in the right direction. I applaud Griffin for his efforts to change culture but it saddens me to see the old guard still exists and holds influence. Shame on you Bewkes. YOU have what sounds like a good vision [for digital and new media] but your execution has been appalling.

    Visit People.com…one of the first things consumers see on the page – offer for free print issues…Mark Golin is fantastic but stop pressuring him to pimp these offers and enforce terrible design. Ridiculous. I could comment on Time Inc. sites for another 20K words.

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  3. Going to work in the Time & Life Building in 1987 was a dream come true. It was there that I first learned about the separation of church and state in a business setting. And management was out in front of the prevailing social issues of the era, including gender equality in the work force. The general public will probably never know whether the charges of “sexism” and “racism” are warranted here. And if reports that Mr. Griffin invoked or imposed his religious views during meetings with staffers prove to be true, it would add a layer of cluelessness to the alleged insensitive behavior. In the court of public opinion, people are too often guilty until proven innocent. But in the time-honored belief that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” one can only imagine that Mr. Bewkes had little choice but to cut his losses.

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  4. Going to work in the Time & Life Building in 1987 was a dream come true. It was there that I first learned about the separation of church and state in a business setting. And management was out in front of the prevailing social issues of the era, including gender equality in the work force. The general public will probably never know whether the charges of “sexism” and “racism” are warranted here. And if reports that Mr. Griffin invoked or imposed his religious views during meetings with staffers prove to be true, it would add a layer of cluelessness to the alleged insensitive behavior. In the court of public opinion, people are too often guilty until proven innocent. But in the time-honored belief that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” one can only imagine that Mr. Bewkes had little choice but to cut his losses.

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  5. Griffin was widely known as a self promoter within the corridors of MDP. He stacked the Meredith office in Des Moines and NYC with his own hires so he guaranteed loyalty and that is why he survived so long there.

    His mistakes at Meredith have been completely covered up by his own PR machine and spin factory. I’ll bet that his purchases and directions are slowly pushed aside or sold in the coming years.

    MDP lost more than $100 million in 2009 while Griffin still managed a full bonus AND he made sure the employees did not get one. A decent leader would have foregone a 7 figure bonus when his leadership yielded such horrible fiscal results that were then forced down the throats of hundreds of employees. Griffin got his, made sure his hand picked team got theirs and then turned up his nose at the serfs.

    The noise from Time is exactly what was said about Griffin at MDP for years during his reign. Imperious, out of touch, standoffish, bullying, but no one ever said anything about Griffin’s comments about religion or anything close to him being a sexist. That appears to be classic piling on but there’s no need to pile on someone so obviously out of touch with everyone but his own ego.

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