Time Inc. Makes a Huey

John Huey, the graying 54-year-old Georgian air-guitaring editorial director of Time Inc., who scares the living crap out of much of the population of 1271 Sixth Avenue these days, was hungry.

Most of his predecessors as the editorial elite at Time Inc. were club men, the kind of executives who signed little lunch orders with little pencils and waited for their grilled cheese and beer. Mr. Huey was louder.

“When are we going to eat?” bellowed Mr. Huey to no one in particular as he wandered around the pre-lunch reception outside the ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria, where he was attending the National Magazine Awards.

Mumbled silence met his question.

“We should be inside right now. I’m going inside!” he said.

Wandering back a few minutes later, Mr. Huey said, “I feel like I have to watch my wallet! I feel like somebody’s gonna pick my pocket!”

Then he asked a reporter: “How many you think we’ll win?”

The reporter tossed the question back to him. Mr. Huey responded: “We’ve got 15 up. I figure we’ll win three.”

Have a little faith in yourself, the reporter said.

“It’s not myself that I don’t have faith in,” Mr. Huey said, referring to the judging. A couple of hours later, Mr. Huey exited, having godfathered two awards, for Time and Entertainment Weekly .

At least he had eaten.

John Huey, an outsider at the ultimate insiders’ magazine company, is what passes for a magazine czar these days: He’s the figure of power whose ascension to day-to-day control of Time Inc.’s flagship magazines, whose unpredictability and penchant for performance above everything else, signals the very real end to the hushed tones, the polite politics and the predictable lives left behind by Hedley Donovan and the rest of the boys with skinny ties that took over the reins of the place from Henry Luce in the 1960′s. John Huey is not really a Time Inc. man, not in the same sense that Walter Isaacson-the Rhodes Scholar who, as managing editor of Time magazine, had been brought up on the plantation practically from the beginning of his journalism career-was when he was at the company. And as a result, Mr. Huey thinks of Time Inc. less as Tara than a as big magazine empire that needs a sporadic, bracing, non-clubby set of kicks and shocks to keep it vital.

“What does he mean to Time Inc.?” former Life managing editor Daniel Okrent said. “His impact is going to be huge. He’s not interested in the formal lines of succession at the company. He makes decisions and he’s willing to stick by them.”

It hasn’t even been a year since Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine tapped Mr. Huey to take over after Walter Isaacson left the post for CNN. But Mr. Huey-who declined to be interviewed for this article-has made the most of the time and power he’s been given. While Mr. Isaacson was mostly responsible for developing synergy between Time Inc. and AOL and the rest of the empire, last July Mr. Pearlstine gave Mr. Huey direct oversight of the company’s flagship titles. To date, three magazines- People , Sports Illustrated and InStyle (overseen by Time Inc. corporate editor Isolde Motley)-have new editors, while a fourth, Entertainment Weekly , watches candidates compete while its editor, James Seymore, spends more and more time as a consultant for another Time Inc. publishing arm, Time4Media.

It has been his decisions regarding Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly in particular that have awakened those inside the velvet coffin. By choosing a veteran rogue-outsider for Sports Illustrated , by not giving away his hand in respect to the future of Entertainment Weekly , Mr. Huey has helped Time Inc. re-enter the private sector and put 1271 Sixth Avenue on notice.

“He loves to keep things in turmoil,” said one Time Inc. source. “He likes things to be competitive. He wants people to feel like they don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

The weekly that has felt the tightest tug of Mr. Huey’s strings was Sports Illustrated , where last winter he installed Terry McDonell, former Rolling Stone , Esquire , Men’s Journal and US Weekly editor (not a Time Inc. title among them), as Bill Colson’s replacement in February. In any other environment-across the street at Wenner Media, down in Times Square at the Condé Nast building-the choice of a total outsider to lead a magazine would have been business as usual. But this was Time Inc., a place that, despite innovations by Mr. Logan and Mr. Pearlstine, still clings to the pillars of tradition.

As Rik Kirkland, Mr. Huey’s onetime deputy and successor as managing editor at Fortune , put it: “If you don’t want change, you don’t put Huey in charge. I mean, duh!”

Of course, with change comes enemies. And these days, one’s most likely to find them at Time . The company’s premiere title, roused from the depths by Mr. Isaacson in the mid-1990′s, has been under attack, according to sources, who say Mr. Huey has put managing editor and former Isaacson deputy Jim Kelly squarely under his control.

“Jim fears John in a way that Walter didn’t fear Norm,” one Time source said. “Huey is not a popular guy around here.”

Another source put it this way: “Jim is no longer making Walter’s magazine. He’s making John Huey’s.”

Mr. Kelly, for his part, dismissed such notions. He said that while Mr. Huey had suggested that he make the Notebook section “more newsier,” much of Time ‘s transformation in the past several months could be attributed to the magazine’s renewed sense of purpose and mission following Sept. 11.

“Basically he comes down and asks, ‘Have you ever thought about this?’ and ‘Have you ever thought that?’” Mr. Kelly said. “And usually I say no. All that he asked from me is that I keep an open mind about what he says. He happens to be a very good listener. John is constantly asking Time to break news, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Mr. Kelly said he received little interference from Mr. Huey, but added: “If I’m on the 34th floor, I’d be really interested in what Time magazine does. In fact, I would find it odd if either Norm or John didn’t take a keen interest in one of the most prestigious magazines in the country. I would find it really weird.”

Yet it would seem that Mr. Huey’s main opponent in his tenure is not people, but a way of life: one that nurtures Time lifers from cradle to grave, that provides them with a level of comfort and predictability.

“The cliché is that Time Inc. puts a premium on being polite and civilized,” Mr. Kirkland said. “John’s just sort of a guy that says, ‘Hey, let’s get stuff done.’ He’s adding a performance culture to a place where people used to think they could have nice, quiet careers.”

While Mr. Huey might like to play the outsider among the New York media elites-the anti-elitist Southerner who commutes regularly to and from South Carolina to be with his third wife, Kate (he was previously divorced and widowed)-the truth is that his life’s trick has been managing to be both outside and in the center of the crowd. As a teenager growing up in the white environs of North Atlanta in the 1960′s, he cultivated the persona of someone who liked to be different-but not so different that people wouldn’t pay attention. At North Fulton High, he fronted an all-white R&B band and ran a fictional-and ultimately triumphant-candidate for student-body president. He was the boy who’d go off on his own, on a bus to downtown Atlanta, to see James Brown and Otis Redding and Joe Tex perform in concert when he knew he’d be the only white person there.

“He described how enthralled the crowd was,” high-school friend Brian Cumming said, “that the whole place was trembling like we’d never heard. He’d act out the parts-the guitar, the singer; he’d show us how James Brown would hold the microphone. Knowing Johnny was good enough. Listening to him tell the story, we didn’t have to be there.” (“Johnny” is Mr. Huey.)

“Johnny once told me,” Mr. Cumming went on to say, “that if he had gone to some Ivy League school-where being a liberal meant being a conformist-he would have joined the American Nazi Party just to be different. Instead he went to the University of Georgia, where people were more conservative, so he became liberal.”

He still air-guitars for a willing audience.

It was perhaps only natural that he’d put his storytelling to use-first at a weekly called the DeKalb New Era , and then at the Atlanta Constitution . But it was when Mr. Huey joined The Wall Street Journal in 1975 that John Huey began to take shape. As a writer, Mr. Huey met the likes of Sam Walton, with whom he’d later collaborate on a best-selling biography. But The Journal was also where Mr. Huey got his first taste of real management, when he helped Mr. Pearlstine set up the paper’s European edition in 1982. A year later, in 1983, when Mr. Pearlstine took the reins of The Journal in the States, he’d have the ship to himself.

Mr. Huey was still in his mid-30′s when he went to Brussels. Still a young man, he got the chance to start something from the ground up, to become a judge of talent, to hire people and manage them, to understand power and how to wield it. To, as he’d later tell others, “throw shit against the wall and see what sticks.”

This would come in handy five years later, when he began his most ambitious and most spectacular failure to date: Southpoint . A Texas Monthly for the South, originally developed for The Journal after Mr. Huey had returned to the States as the paper’s Atlanta bureau chief in 1985, he’d brought it up over lunch with Fortune ‘s then managing editor, Marshall Loeb, during the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta. Mr. Loeb liked the idea, hired Mr. Huey as a contributing editor at Fortune , and helped persuade the higher-ups to take on Mr. Huey’s idea as part of its Southern Progress Corporation group of magazines-then run by current Time Inc. chairman and chief executive Don Logan. Though it lasted only nine issues, Southpoint ‘s run demonstrated Mr. Huey’s judge of talent-Tom Junod and Howell Raines were among its contributors-and his ability to win people over by throwing the proverbial shot glass across the room, as if to say: “So now, what are you going to do?”

“I remember us going to Birmingham,” said Doug Cumming, Brian Cumming’s brother, whom Mr. Huey recruited to Southpoint from The Providence Journal-Bulletin . “And he’d fling down his black bag on the table and say, ‘Let’s get down to business.’

“In a sense, he’s very calculated,” Mr. Cumming continued. “He’s shrewd and canny about power and status. He can miscalculate, but he’s very shrewd in understanding what power is and how to play it.”

But it was with Fortune -the magazine Mr. Luce had originally wanted to christen Power -where Mr. Huey’s world view coalesced. He moved to New York in 1994 and became the deputy to Walter Kiechel, then the managing editor. Fortune had not had its footing for some years. In 1995, Mr. Pearlstine joined the company as its editor in chief and, as a sign of things to come, opened his regime by replacing Mr. Kiechel-who was just nine months into his tenure-with Mr. Huey.

Handed the ball by Mr. Pearlstine, Mr. Huey displayed a willingness to fling it deep. Once America’s great literary cathedral of capitalist journalism, Fortune had staggered through the 70′s and 80′s without an identity, even as capitalism was rebuilding itself in America. Mr. Huey made Fortune into the businessman’s sexy side companion, one that soon leapfrogged the two competitors- Forbes and Business Week -into first place among readers and advertisers.

After years as a somewhat soporific home for pretty snoozy business journalism, suddenly Fortune was attacking Condé Nast chief executive Steve Florio, putting Claudia Schiffer on the cover, running stories like “Addicted to Sex: Corporate America’s Dirty Secret.” In addition, said Mr. Kirkland, Mr. Huey introduced an air of “creative tension” into the offices as he managed the magazine by a combination of “diplomatic delicacy and hand grenades.”

The cocky Mr. Huey had achieved what his boss Mr. Pearlstine once called “the great magazine turnaround of the 1990′s.” Whether or not that was true, it was close enough. And with it, Mr. Huey developed a corporate persona. He was the shit-kicker, the hard-assed, non-corporate man with a cherry-bomb, nonsequential consciousness who never asked permission to board, sir.

“He’s not afraid of conflict,” Mr. Kirkland said. “Now, he could throw a tantrum. But that tantrum is always about the message he wants to get across.”

With success came more power. In 1997, in a loud series of events, Mr. Pearlstine replaced longtime Money managing editor Frank Lalli with Huey protégé Bob Safian, who, in his new job, reported directly to Mr. Huey. Then, in February 2001, Mr. Pearlstine created the Fortune Group of magazines; suddenly, Mr. Huey had direct oversight of Time Inc.’s business magazines, including Fortune , Money , eCompany Now (now Business 2.0 ), Mutual Funds and FSB: Fortune Small Business .

When Mr. Isaacson left as Time Inc.’s editorial director to go manage Jeff Greenfield and Wolf Blitzer last July, Mr. Huey got Mr. Isaacson’s job-and then some. Stepping away from day-to-day operations, Mr. Pearlstine handed him the keys to Time , Sports Illustrated , Entertainment Weekly and People .

“When Walter briefly had the job,” Mr. Pearlstine said, “it was just following the merger with AOL. A lot of his focus was looking for ways for us to interact with AOL. When John came in, that six-month period had passed. And given his experience with a fortnightly, it made sense to throw him into the weeklies.”

“What he wants to do at Time Inc.,” said Rik Kirkland, managing editor of Fortune , “is to help Pearlstine reinvigorate the place, like he did at Fortune .”

Fair enough. Reinvigoration is a noble concept when times are good. But this is a matter of survival. Mr. Huey’s tenure comes during a period when Time Inc.-a company reeling from an advertising recession-must look increasingly inward to right itself.

Indeed, 16 months after the merger that brought AOL and Time Warner together, Time Inc. seems more alone than ever. While AOL struggles with its online ventures and Warner Music fights the scourge of pesky Internet pirates, the idea of an über -editor that began to be floated when Mr. Isaacson left for CNN-one that would oversee all editorial content across the AOL Time Warner universe-seems deader than, well, Life .

In that vein, Mr. Huey becomes a man with emergency powers, whose day-to-day oversight of Time Inc. will determine what these magazines mean to a company that has discovered it needs them more than it knew. And to an American public that’s not quite sure if it still does. And to the tieless guys from Virginia who are somehow balancing a great corporation on a bubble. Mr. Huey’s mission has now become this: to protect and preserve and help grow brands from the scorched earth left behind from what very well may be remembered as the most inexplicable business miscalculation since the Bronfmans sold Seagram.

“I don’t think his goal is all that complicated,” Mr. Kelly said. “I think he wants Time Inc.-editorially and financially-to rule the magazine world.”