Business Magazines

Time Inc.’s overspending – a cautionary tale for publishers

I started as a writer at Time Magazine on a Monday in 1998. I turned up that morning to find the 23rd floor of the Time-Life building, the editorial offices, deserted. Nobody at Time went in to work on Mondays. The magazine operated on a Tuesday through Friday schedule. That was the first of many quirks I would enjoy at what was still an immensely profitable enterprise.

The legendary drink carts were gone, but we took a livery car home every night if we wanted and we had unlimited expense accounts. And I mean unlimited: I remember turning in monthly T&E’s exceeding $25,000, and one editor supposedly ran up $880,000 in expenses in a single year. The process of submitting expenses required calling a subcontracted company and then manually inputting each item using the phone keypad. We all complained about the laborious process but nobody ever complained about the ridiculous amounts we were charging to the company.

We had corporate matching for our 401ks, profit sharing, stock options and stock awards. It felt like we were getting paid six different ways.

I was eventually made the editor of Time Asia, based in Hong Kong, with a circulation of 450,000, a staff of a few hundred, and bureaus all over Asia. I had a housing allowance — the company rented me a beautiful flat on Barker Road, near the Peak — a company car, club memberships, a generous cost of living allowance and tax equalization. I flew business class.

I never knew our budget. I just hired staffers and spent freely on freelancers, assuming that, at some point, if I was overspending, someone would come to my office and alert me. Nobody ever came. At the end of the year, Time managing editor Jim Kelly would give me a $100,000 bonus. And it all felt normal.

It turned out we were overspending. Horrendously. That’s what we were best at.

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