Time Inc. executives, none too pleased

Time Inc. executives, none too pleased that a former employee allegedly was trying to poach people from its Sports Illustrated franchise, have gone legal on John Papanek, editor in chief of the soon-to-launch ESPN Magazine .

Lawyers for Time have accused Mr. Papanek, who was managing editor of Sports Illustrated in the early 1990’s, of breaching terms of his old contract, and they’ve threatened to haul him into court. Unwilling to deal with the hassle-and expense-of fighting Time’s mighty legal battalion, Mr. Papanek has said he will not initiate contact with any of his competitor’s human possessions, even though he disputes Time’s argument, sources at Time and ESPN told Off the Record.

Time’s strong-arm tactics, however, have alienated some writers and editors at Sports Illustrated . Several staff members, including senior writers Jack McCallum and J. Austin Murphy, received phone calls from lawyers, asking them to sign affidavits to aid the crusade against Mr. Papanek’s supposed territorial infringement, sources said. “When lawyers call you out of the blue, it’s like the McCarthy hearings,” said one Sports Illustrated employee. “They want you to betray a guy for the simple fact he wants to up your salary.”

ESPN executives dispute Time’s allegations, pointing out that many staff members approached Mr. Papanek himself. “From our perspective, John has not initiated any contact with any Sports Illustrated people,” said ESPN executive editor John Walsh. Mr. Papanek declined to comment.

Time’s executives decided to bring in lawyers after ESPN began negotiating with senior writer Rick Reilly, as reported in this space in the Sept. 15 issue of The Observer . “When they try to hire our best writer, it can get nasty,” said one Sports Illustrated executive.

The contracts signed by Time’s managing editors in the early 1990’s forbade them from working for certain named competitors or from tampering with the staff of their former employer for one year after the contract expired, sources said. Mr. Papanek left Time in October 1996 to join New Century Network, an Internet venture backed by a consortium of nine newspaper chains. But Time continued to pay Mr. Papanek until February of this year. And therein lies part of the dispute. Although sources said Mr. Papanek was told that the extra time would not be held against him, Time moved to block him from approaching anyone at the company until February 1998.

The Sturm und Drang of legal threats mean very little. Other executives at ESPN still can go after Time’s talent. And disputed negotiations already under way between any Time employees and ESPN Magazine are not affected by the settlement, sources said. Mr. Reilly, for example, has yet to decide on where he’ll end up. Sports Illustrated responded to ESPN’s offer of magazine, TV and movie work (compliments of ESPN’s majority owner, the Walt Disney Company) with a deal that included promises of a weekly gig as the magazine’s back-page columnist and work with HBO and Warner Brothers, which are Time’s sister divisions within the Time Warner empire. Both compensation packages are in the $450,000-a-year range, sources added.

ESPN Magazine already has hired an art director away from Sports Illustrated , F. Darrin Perry, who will be the new magazine’s design director. (Outside the Time world, the new publication has hired Tom Friend away from The New York Times and is close to hiring Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser, who will also get an ESPN Radio talk show, sources said.)

The magazine will make its debut on March 11 as an every-other-week, Rolling Stone -size publication aimed at an audience younger than Sports Illustrated ‘s. Initially, it will promise advertisers a circulation of 350,000. By next September, that number is supposed to reach 500,000. Sports Illustrated , by contrast, has a paid circulation of 3.28 million.

But Time has no illusions about the strength of the ESPN brand, which has expanded beyond cable to the Internet and radio and even theme restaurants. Talk of war against the upstart competitor rumbles through the Time & Life Building, despite the professional and personal relationships Mr. Papanek and others on the ESPN team have with people at Time. “It will be a nice, friendly, thermonuclear war,” said one editor.

Next month, The New Yorker is throwing its own version of a Renaissance Weekend. Chances are, you’re not invited.

Only the real movers and shakers of the Information Age-plus a select number of New Yorker writers and editors-received special invitations to join editor Tina Brown at the Disney Institute in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. There, for 24 hours between 5 P.M., Oct. 14, and 5 P.M. the following day, the special guests will discuss-are you ready?-the future!

“In our era of rapid change, peering into the future has become too important to leave to the psychics and the astrologers,” Ms. Brown wrote in an letter of invitation to ” The New Yorker ‘s Next Conference: The Future of Entertainment, Media, and Our Culture.” “Having a sense of what lies ahead is no longer merely an amusing diversion. Increasingly, it is a practical necessity.”

So not only are the New Yorker editors putting out a special double issue in October about what’s next, they’re bringing together lots of people they write about to make them feel all warm and fuzzy about the magazine. Ms. Brown is tempting the invitees with free room and board and a partial list of confirmed participants. Media titans Michael Eisner, Barry Diller and Michael Bloomberg will mingle with investment banker Steven Rattner, director Mike Nichols and painter David Salle. “It will be an eclectic group, but what all its members have in common is that they are in one way or another the arbiters and purveyors of the future-and are therefore in a position to talk authoritatively about it,” Ms. Brown wrote in the invitation, a copy of which was obtained by Off the Record.

What they’ll be talking about are such ethereal topics as the future of news, the artist versus the suit, and image versus reality, if Ms. Brown’s epistolary description holds. (Maybe they’ll even discuss the aptness of The New Yorker holding such a conference at an outpost of the Disney empire.) “I think I can guarantee you an interesting and challenging experience,” Ms. Brown wrote to the chosen few. “It might even be-dare I say it?-fun.”

For the ink-stained wretches at the New York Post , one of the joys of the job is blasting away at the Daily News in columns and news stories. But ever since Pete Hamill quit under pressure as the Daily News editor in early September, the habit has become blood sport, stretching the already questionable journalistic ethics of Rupert Murdoch’s plaything.

Disses-gratuitous and otherwise-have become nearly a daily occurrence. Herewith are a few samples:

On Sept. 13, the Post gleefully devoted all of page 2 to a rumor that Steve Coz, editor of the National Enquirer , had been offered the Daily News job. Although the rumor was false, and many at the Post still don’t believe it, the Post had a field day running a mock cover of what the Daily News would look like under Mr. Coz’s reign. “Rosie Gay Love Crisis” screamed one headline; “Neil Diamond’s Cancer Nightmare” beckoned another.

On Sept. 17, the Post ‘s lead gossip column, Page Six, claimed the Daily News ‘ extensive coverage of Kitty Kelley’s slam job on the British royal family was a reaction to New York magazine’s dubbing the newspaper dull. On Sept. 18, Page Six ran the Daily News ‘ front page headline of the previous day, “A Mess,” in a box, claiming it aptly summed up the paper’s condition.

On Sept. 22, the column treated readers to scathing remarks about Mortimer Zuckerman that Mr. Hamill made in a speech at the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. The Post even managed a slam in its weekly roundup of magazines the same day.

Despite the Post ‘s constant dumping on the Daily News , Mr. Zuckerman’s paper has at least one advantage over its Murdochian competitor: It is a real business.

The Daily News makes money: $10 million a year, according to sources. The Post loses more than that. The Daily News ‘ circulation may have tumbled in recent years, but it still dwarfs the Post’s. And the Daily News ‘ large reporting staff has been breaking good, hard news stories that would never find their way into the celebrity-crowded pages of the Post . If Mr. Zuckerman could figure out what he wants to do with paper, and stick with it, the Post would find itself short of ammunition.

The deceased satirical magazine Might may be no more, but that hasn’t stopped the British magazine The Face from exhuming its corporeal remains and plagiarizing the work.

The successful pop-culture magazine lifted, nearly verbatim, an item from the July-August issue of Might , the final issue of the San Francisco-based publication. Under the heading “Clarification,” Might -and The Face -asked, “Did Jesus say that, or did Billy Joel?” Both magazines correctly attributed “I came to cast fire on the earth” to Jesus, while “We didn’t start the fire” goes to Mr. Joel. “I am the light of the World” belongs to Jesus, while Mr. Joel gets credit for “I am the Entertainer.” And “It’s all about soul” amazingly graces the lyric sheets of both men.

But The Face screwed up one thing in the trans-Atlantic crossing. “Blessed are the meek,” unfortunately, was not a Billy Joel original composition-although with Mr. Joel’s tossing aside pop music and heading into the classical realm, perhaps he will pen something equally profound and jarring.

“The sheer audacity of [the rip-off] boggles the mind,” said David Moodie, a co-founder of the constantly cash-strapped Might who is now the features editor at Spin . “We have our top lawyers working on it. We’re going to hit them with a flurry of lawsuits.”

“Those Brits are sneaky and evil and all that, but I feel sorry for them,” he continued. “They ripped off another magazine word for word, and then they referenced the magazine on the same page [in its version of what’s hot and what’s not]. It’s impressively stupid.” Time Inc. executives, none too pleased