Walter Isaacson Moves On Up to the 34th Floor at Time Inc.

The announcement on Nov. 14 that Walter Isaacson will be the next editorial director of Time Inc. fulfilled long-swirling rumors among magazine-industry insiders, but the move marks the first sign that the magazine empire is preparing for life as part of a merged AOL and Time Warner.

Mr. Isaacson succeeds Henry Muller, who stepped down as editorial director in May to become editor at large. While Mr. Isaacson, now the managing editor of Time , will take over the duties of the No. 2 strategic planner for the publisher’s various magazine titles, the post will include responsibilities Mr. Muller never had. Namely, Mr. Isaacson will be the “liaison” between Time Inc. and CNN, which is already owned by Time Inc. corporate parent Time Warner, and AOL. Norm Pearlstine, Time Inc. editor in chief, will continue to run the magazines.

“Norm asked me to become the editorial director and collaborate on the editorial strategy on our major magazines and be his primary liaison with CNN and AOL and others,” Mr. Isaacson said. On Jan. 1, he moves 10 floors up from his current Time magazine office to the Time Inc. corporate suites on the 34th floor. Replacing him as managing editor of Time is Jim Kelly, now the deputy managing editor.

Mr. Pearlstine said that up to now, Time Inc. has not given much thought to the editorial implications of the AOL merger. “The focus has been, to date, on business issues as we try to resolve the merger and, if anything, I really wanted the editorial people to focus on covering the story rather than being a part of it,” Mr. Pearlstine said. “Nonetheless, I think–assuming that the deal closes and goes through–there’s going to be some real opportunities to do some new stuff with editorial content online, journalism online, and I think that’s going to require some coordination that’s beyond anything done before.”

Mr. Pearlstine said Mr. Isaacson’s interests at Time and previous experience at Time Inc. made him uniquely well-qualified to be the company’s new media guru. Prior to taking the top job at Time magazine, Mr. Isaacson spent three years heading up Time Inc.’s Internet misadventure, Pathfinder–so unsuccessful that, early in its five-year existence, Time Inc. chief executive Don Logan referred to the Web as a “black hole” for publishers. And at Time , Mr. Isaacson has heavily emphasized coverage of high technology and the new economy, and launched Time Digital as an offshoot title.

“If you look at Walter’s background and temperament,” Mr. Pearlstine said, “he did spend three years running Time Inc. New Media and clearly has an understanding and an affinity for the digital world.” (As for personal affinity, Mr. Isaacson spent time this summer sitting around campfires at the digerati-heavy Burning Man desert gathering.)

Mr. Pearlstine continued, “In that prior life, before becoming managing editor, he forged some pretty good relationships with AOL, and certainly as managing editor of Time magazine he forged some good relationships with CNN.”

Judging from the unsuccessful experiences of building a partnership between CNN and Time Inc., though, Mr. Pearlstine was not absolutely confident that the liaison portion of Mr. Isaacson’s job would take up the bulk of his new editorial director’s time. “We don’t know,” he said.

“When the Turner deal went through, we were open to explore every conceivable thing that might be done with CNN,” Mr. Pearlstine said. Three years later, the joint projects amount to the CNN/SI 24-hour sports station, a couple of joint bureaus and the CNN series Impact and Newsstand . Notoriously, Newsstand ‘s very first episode, about the use of nerve gas in the Vietnam War, was retracted, boding poorly for those dreaming of Time Inc.-CNN synergy.

Of Newsstand , which was meant to be the flagship in the brave new Time Inc.-CNN world, Mr. Pearlstine said: “We did not succeed in building Newsstand into a true partnership of magazines with CNN.”

So, looking forward to the post-merger world, Mr. Pearlstine was more cautious about how deep the relationship between his magazines and AOL’s online properties–and therefore how big Mr. Isaacson’s liaison job–will be.

“I think the potential is that it could be a very big part of his job, but I think it’s too soon to tell,” Mr. Pearlstine said. “We haven’t gotten to know those folks on an editorial level all that well. Ask me in six months and I’ll tell you whether it’s really top of the list, or whether it’s the traffic cop for other folks as we’re trying to figure things out. I’m hoping it’s the former.”

Mr. Isaacson, however, appears to be getting to know the AOL executives. For instance, at the first Presidential debate in Boston in October, Mr. Isaacson was seen introducing AOL president Bob Pittman to folks in the press room.

Mr. Isaacson will also be the first editorial director in seven years to have to work with a corporate editor. That is Isolde Motley, who got the title in May shortly after presiding over the death of Life .

Some observers of the peculiar breed of politics employed at Time Inc. have speculated about whether there will be room for both. Mr. Isaacson thought those fears were unfounded: “Norm and I and Isolde will all collaborate. She’s truly a wonderful and fun person to work with.”

Mr. Pearlstine pointed out that through 1992, a corporate editor traditionally worked alongside the editorial director. He also noted that in the six months that Ms. Motley’s been on the job, her plate has already become pretty full, working with Southern Progress , a subsidiary of Time Inc. based in Birmingham, Ala., and heading up the discussions with Essence Communications, a magazine publisher in which Time Inc. bought a minority stake this summer.

Mr. Pearlstine also noted that Ms. Motley has already been handling some of the administrative tasks of the editorial director job, and implied that she will continue to do so. “Out of the three, she is by far the best administrator, and she has already taken over an awful lot of the administrative stuff that Henry Muller was doing for me.

“She brings some strengths and expertise that are different than what Walter and I have,” Mr. Pearlstine continued. How the three of them would divvy up responsibilities, he added, was still to be determined. “She, Walter and I have yet to sit down together and talk about this, and frankly we’ll spend the next six weeks figuring it out.”

Meanwhile, at Time , Mr. Kelly was preparing to take charge of the news magazine. Just as Mr. Isaacson’s promotion was expected, Mr. Kelly has been the heir apparent at the magazine for some time.

“It wasn’t a complete shock to me because the nature of my relationship with Walter and Norm is, if it looked like I wasn’t going to succeed Walter, I know they would have told me a while ago,” Mr. Kelly said.

Nonetheless, it was a surprise when Mr. Kelly got the official word on Monday, Nov. 13. He, Mr. Pearlstine and Mr. Isaacson were going to lunch at Palio, a lunch Mr. Kelly said he thought was called in order to discuss the Person of the Year issue.

“We all ordered club soda with lime juice, and then Norm said Walter is going upstairs Jan. 1 and I was going to succeed Walter, and that’s when we all had real drinks,” Mr. Kelly said.

Both Mr. Kelly and Mr. Isaacson began their careers at Time Inc. at Time magazine in 1978, coming on staff four months apart. They have become close enough during the 22 years to share vacation homes.

By all accounts, the two editors have had a very agreeable relationship during Mr. Isaacson’s tenure as managing editor. “Jim and I have finished each other’s sentences and communicated through raised eyebrows or smiles for the last five years,” Mr. Isaacson noted.

Perhaps the only bump in the transition was the trouble getting champagne into the Time conference room on Nov. 14 at the regular 10 a.m. editors’ meeting for the announcement of Messrs. Isaacson and Kelly’s promotions. The meeting was also attended by Mr. Pearlstine and several top people from the publishing side of Time . The champagne was brought in the wrong door, but soon made its way to the conference room.

“Five minutes later,” Mr. Kelly said, “everyone was drinking champagne and talking about Florida, as it should be.

“In fact,” he joked, “I am planning to do champagne as a regular feature of the 10 o’clock meeting.”

Don’t expect to see Time change too much under Mr. Kelly. Having had so much sway over the magazine, Mr. Kelly said he doesn’t feel the need to dramatically put his stamp on the magazine.

The new editor of Time did say, though, that he’d like to boost coverage of family issues. “This might be reflective of the fact that I have a 19-month-old son, but I would love to own the family area,” Mr. Kelly said.

For now, though, he’s been happy covering the Presidential voting mess in Florida. “This story is just so good,” he said. “When you come down to it, a news magazine’s finest hour is when it’s covering breaking, fragmentary, complicated news and trying to put a narrative on those events. Except for maybe the day I got married and the day we had a baby, I can’t imagine being happier–and that was even before the promotion.”

Around 3:30 a.m. on election night, just when it was becoming clear that it had been premature to call George W. Bush our 43rd President, New York Times executive editor Joe Lelyveld surely made some journalistic history. According to a Times source, he actually said, “Stop the presses.”

At the time, the presses were running off an edition with a headline that said “Bush Appears to Defeat Gore.” Mr. Lelyveld was sitting in the office of national editor Andrew Rosenthal at the time. When an editor poked his head in the door, Mr. Lelyveld relayed the instruction.

“He wasn’t thinking, ‘This is a Front Page moment.’ We had a story that said Bush won, and he said, ‘Stop the presses,'” said a source. “It was very understated.”

Mr. Lelyveld was away on an executive retreat and not available to comment.

With the New York Senate race concluded, the press corps that followed Rick Lazio and Hillary Rodham Clinton to nursing homes, diners and school auditoriums in all corners of New York State celebrated their freedom on Nov. 10 by getting blotto in the basement of a pool hall on West 19th Street–all on the tab of Gregg Birnbaum and Bob Hardt, who wrote the “Campaign Buzz” column for the New York Post .

There were even T-shirts to mark the occasion: “I covered the New York Senate race and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

Midway through the affair–attended by reporters from The New York Times , Daily News , The Wall Street Journal , The Observer , NY1 and The Village Voice , among others, as well as several Clinton campaign staffers and one lone representative of the Lazio campaign–Messrs. Birnbaum and Hardt were presented with plaques, a pointed reference to the plaque-flap that consumed the final days of the campaign, when the Daily News disclosed that Mrs. Clinton had received contributions from members of the American Muslim Alliance.

“We put some money together,” said Lara Jakes, who covered the campaign for the Albany Times-Union , in presenting the plaques. “I hope it doesn’t end up in the plaque warehouse in the sky.”

The inscription: “In recognition of your hard work on behalf of human rights and Campaign Buzz, with much appreciation from the American Muslim Alliance and the 2000 United States Senate campaign press corps.”

When Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson showed up just past midnight, Mr. Birnbaum showed off his plaque. Mr. Wolfson, laughing a lot more these days, said, “That’s beautiful, that’s beautiful.”