Vibe and Spin Face Down a Murky Future

Employees at Time Inc., the magazine division of Time Warner Inc., found that they’ll soon be working for AOL Time Warner in an e-mail sent companywide before their arrival at work on Jan. 10. Far from panicking about handing over their professional fates to a Virginia-based cyberspace outfit, the benefits-swaddled scribes rejoiced: Almost all of them are Time Warner stockholders. Since the stock market liked the merger and sent Time Warner’s stock up, they liked it, too.

“The mood is framed by the sound of options exercising,” said one Time Inc. editor.

A Time Inc. executive explained it: “Every employee with at least a year’s tenure gets T.W. stock in his or her pension fund each year, paid for by the company, with the opportunity to buy an additional amount in for a pension fund. Ranking employees-usually the senior-editor level and up for edit types-get options every year, at higher-ups’ discretion. Option grants vest over a three-year period, but as of the Saturday vote by the board to accept this deal, which constitutes under the option rules a change of control, all unvested options became vested.”

On Jan. 11, the day after the Time Warner sale was announced, a People magazine staff member told Off the Record: “It was pretty giddy around here yesterday. A bunch of celeb-chasing journalists who can barely understand any measurement except a hem length and haven’t multiplied two numbers together since grade school suddenly sounded like a bunch of hotshot day traders as they tried to calculate their net worth and worried whether it was time to sell. Corporate drones actually looked up and smiled at each other in the hallways.”

The new tagline for Brill’s Content is elegant, if chilly: “Skepticism Is a Virtue.”

So are we being virtuous in asking Steven Brill why so many people are leaving his fledgling e-commerce Web site? Departures from Brillscontent.com include on-line manager Ari Voukydis and on-line assistant editor Kendra Ammann, as well as staff writer Matthew Heimer.

“It’s the same old normal turnover,” said Mr. Brill. He also denied that it had anything to do with the arrival of David Kuhn, an editor formerly of Talk who has been placed over Brillscontent.com editor Howard Witt, the ex-editor of the Chicago Tribune Web site.

Why was the magazine redesigned by Ogilvy & Mather, an advertising agency?

” Ad Age did a piece this week saying that because we were lagging in circulation and advertising, we redesigned,” Mr. Brill said, scoffingly. “A year to a year and a half into any project, I start to focus on how it looks like.”

It’s all according to plan, he insisted.

“The major work they’re doing for us has to do with the new venture,” he said. “As part of the new venture, we’re starting to raise the profile of the magazine.”

Was Ogilvy hired to do the e-commerce venture after its original geek-architect, Ed Schlossberg (husband of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg), left in the fall?

“Schlossberg was working on the early stages,” said Mr. Brill. “Very little to do with design, more to do with figuring out what it would be about. And I’m still talking to him about that.”

(Mr. Brill wrote a grandstanding piece in the October issue of Brill’s Content chastising the press for taking pictures of Mr. Schlossberg’s child and running them when John F. Kennedy Jr. died.)

Mr. Brill, you told The Wall Street Journal in a piece that ran Dec. 1 that after a year of flat advertising pages, “the February issue will carry about 52 pages of ads.” But the February issue contains, by Off the Record’s count, 33. Why?

“I didn’t predict 52 pages, among other things that were wrong with that story,” said Mr. Brill. “Our budget for that issue was 30 pages.” Did he ask for a correction? “Uh, no. If I did that with all stories written about us, I’d spend my day doing it.”

The Journal reporter Matthew Rose referred comment to Dow Jones spokesman Richard Tofel, who said, “That number appears in Mr. Rose’s notes and was read back to Mr. Brill before the story was published.”

The February Talk is out, redesigned by Oliviero Toscani, who designs the Benetton clothing ads. The magazine comes packaged with one of the clothing company’s multipage “transgressive” advertorials. It’s a little booklet that comes with the magazine, featuring photographs of death row inmates, and interviews with them, too. That’s synergy! Talk ‘s creative director serves the same function for the magazine’s major advertiser.

The interviews with the inmates, by the way, are full of softball questions-asking them what they think of prison life and Monica Lewinsky, etc. Nothing about the people they murdered or other such unpleasant topics.

Although editor Tina Brown lamented the disappearance of the old design (“The free-form pagination and multiple-image covers I admired in European magazines seem to have bothered enough readers here to merit some adjustment,” she writes in her editor’s letter), it looks better, and it’s easier to find stories, including one by Washington Post media critic (and CNN host) Howard Kurtz.

It seems odd that Mr. Kurtz would write a story for a magazine that itself constitutes a large, ongoing media story.

“Every once in a while, I like to write a freelance piece,” Mr. Kurtz said. “And if I have occasions to write about it, I’ll certainly disclose it.”

Mr. Kurtz, who has also written for Vanity Fair and Brill’s Content , said he proposed the article to Talk , but that he’d asked permission to write it.

“I would simply add, as a media reporter, I try not to write too often for any one publication,” he said.

Magazine mogul Bob Miller and his partners are seeking $200 million for his Vibe-Spin Ventures, but may have trouble finding suitors willing to come up with the asking price, according to magazine industry sources.

The sticking point in the deal? It might be Spin , the old indie-rock magazine. While profitable, it made its name covering a genre of pop music that had its heyday in the early 90′s. Vibe , on the other hand, covers hip-hop, which continues to be big business. So does another Miller publication on the block, Blaze .

Two of the three likely bidders-Time Warner Inc. and Viacom Inc.-are in the middle of mergers, which may be slowing down the sale of the magazines. Another possible suitor, Jann Wenner of Wenner Media, is in the midst of spending a reported $50 million to remake his monthly celebrity magazine, Us , into a weekly. One magazine source said Mr. Wenner has expressed no interest in Blaze , a fact that flabbergasts one Miller insider. “People still don’t believe it, but Blaze is in the hottest position,” said one source.

The private equity firm of Freeman Spogli & Company backed Mr. Miller’s Miller Publishing but forced the sale of the two music magazines last fall.

It’s possible that Vibe could be broken off from the group and sold separately, sources said.